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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review: The Sisters Brothers

I’ve been reading various book reviews and book columns over the past few months, all of which have mentioned Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers as 1) a book to watch for; 2) a book that will be nominated for various prizes; 3) a book which has been nominated for...; 4) the winner of....: all of which piqued my interest, of course, and got the book onto my “must buy” or “must get for Christmas” lists.

Well, I didn’t get it for Christmas – so I bought it on Boxing Day and read it recently. DeWitt’s book comes with a litany of prizes and nominations: winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award; winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize; Man Booker finalist, etc. And in my opinion, worth every accolade. It’s a fresh take on an old genre: Western fiction.

The Edmonton Journal says, “With nods to Charles Portis and Cormac McCarthy and the classic cinematic Western, this is a quirky, lustful tale that clips along...” And I love this quote from the Winnipeg Review: "[it] practically holds a Colt to your head and growls: read me.”

I used to, as a kid, devour Westerns (along with Perry Mason mysteries) and still delve in occasionally (especially the likes of Michael McGarrity), and through either McGarrity or Nevada Barr – I can’t remember which – I was introduced to the charming Western novels of Eugene Manlove Rhodes (The Proud Sheriff, 1935). 

Of course, since coming to Canada, I have explored the Western Canada works of Guy Vanderhaeghe, Richmond P. Hobson’s Jr. two non-fiction ranching classics, Grass Beyond the Mountains (1951) and Nothing Too Good for a Cowboy (1955), and others. And Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow, while not Western fiction, is certainly a vivid portrait of the North American West at the turn of the last century.

But back to The Sisters Brothers: I was entranced by DeWitt’s slightly formal, a bit stilted and quirky 19th century manner of dialogue – not at all off-putting; rather, quite engaging. I also was intrigued by his deadpan approach to the violence – of which there is a great deal. Again, I think perhaps it is a style that in part pays homage to the genre – and perhaps the Spaghetti Western – and also takes the edge off the many violent episodes the professional killers find themselves in.

In short: a tremendous read, very engaging, quite original. Highly recommended by literary experts around the world – and me!

A final note: Dewitt has acknowledged the essential assistance provided at a critical time by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Government of Canada through the Canadian Book Fund. This is another excellent example of why we need all our levels of government to support creativity and the arts.

-James Wright
General Director, Vancouver Opera


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