Patrick deWitt's novel The Sisters Brothers might just be my top favourite of the Booker shortlist, and my biggest surprise so far. I was dreading reading this book, knowing it only to be about two hired assassins in the Wild West, and coming to it unadorned via the kindle. So I was utterly unprepared to meet the beguiling tenderness of the narrator Eli who, with his brother Charlie, sets off on a vastly entertaining picaresque adventure, to hunt down and kill a gold prospector the unlikely named Herman Kermit Warm on the instructions of their boss. Eli's voice is an irresistible mix of sincerity and reflectiveness. Temperamentally unsuited to murder he is nevertheless capable of a towering black rage which his brother uses to devastating effect. In the murderous moment, he confesses to feeling a mixture of lust and disgrace, exemplifying deWitt's piercing economy when investigating human excess. Although soft-hearted and implacably loyal, Eli is the most unpredictable and therefore the most dangerous of the two.
The conventions of the Wild West are the conventions of fantasy, and by no means is this an historical novel. Instead the brothers offer us a reinvention of the past. With their flinty virtues and unthinking cruelty, the brothers hold up for us a foxed mirror into how people visit arbitrary violence upon each other, tenderly sentimentalise their animals and set their course by fluke and shifting alliance. This is a novel which asks some powerful questions about love and death, but it does so with thrilling disarming slapstick. We are in a world so darkly and surreally imagined it cannot help but beg comparisons with Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and fortunately for us, it stands up well to such comparisons.
de Witt's novel is both original and part of a tradition and he handles those two factors with grace and sureness. Wonderful, memorable and definitely worthy of a prize.