Walter Scott Prize: The Sisters Brothers

Richard Lee, Sandra Gulland, Kristen Hannum


The Sisters Brothers: When genre gets literary

Patrick deWitt’s first novel, Ablutions, a short novel about a descent into addiction, attracted praise from reviewers, but nothing to compare with the storm of adulation that has greeted The Sisters Brothers. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker, the Scotiabank Giller, the Rogers Writers’ Trust and the Governor General’s Award – winning the Rogers Writers’ (2011) and the Governor Generals’s (2011).

This one is trickier than the others for me to categorise. It sounds like a literary take on a genre novel. But is it really? Yes, it’s set in the Wild West, yes there is a mission, and a good dose of violence. As deWitt says himself in the interview, he thought this wouldn’t be enough for the genre types. Or is it more a transforming take on a genre novel, a genre novel written as literature? As I say, tricky. Other literary novelists who have taken on genre forms are Kingsley Amis with the Bond story Colonel Sun (and, more lately, Seb Faulks); Robert Louis Stevenson who wrote ‘tushery’ alongside his serious novels, and the great Sir Walter himself – whose Ivanhoe is ‘genre’, but whose Heart of Midlothian is firmly literary. But I don’t think deWitt is doing this. I suppose what I really think is this book is very curious indeed: it is literary and genre, and quite honestly both. That’s a powerful combination.

This time we’ve asked longterm member and fine novelist Sandra Gulland and staff writer Kristen Hannum to look at The Sisters Brothers as ‘literary fiction’.

This is the seventh in a series of 8 articles featuring the Walter Scott Prize. You can read the first here: What is Literary Historical Fiction? – and follow links to the rest.

Sandra Gulland admires eccentricity and voice – and an outstanding Canadian author

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt was one of those rare novels that got me raving. “You have to read this,” I told my husband again and again. “You have to read this,” I told the members of my book club. I’d never read anything like it.

I found everything about it delightfully original, from the puzzle of its title, to the puzzle of its Canadian cover design, to its curious structure (with “Intermissions” between parts), to its genre. A literary Western? Get real!


delightfully original, from the puzzle of its title, to the puzzle of its Canadian cover design, to its curious structure



I won’t go into detail about the plot. Suffice it to say that the narrator, Eli, is the tag-along brother of tough-guy Charlie and that the two eke out a meager living as hired guns. The novel is set in the mid-1800s in the American west and violence is a given. They’re on a journey to kill Warm in San Francisco — “A good place to kill someone, I have heard,” Charlie tells his younger brother.

Eli is not your usual cowboy. He worries about his weight, he’s afraid of spiders and snakes, he’s enchanted with his toothbrush.
After breakfast, I took advantage of his [Charlie’s] good humor, convincing him to try my toothbrush. ‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘Up and down. Now, give the tongue a good scrub.’ Breathing in, he felt the mint on his tongue and was impressed with the sensation of it. Handing back the brush and powder he said, ‘There is a very fine feeling.’
‘That is what I’ve been telling you.’
‘It is as though my entire head has been cleaned.’

Eli questions everything, and eventually their vocation, but he is loyal to his brother. ” . . . I lay in the dark thinking about the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of a bloodline can be.”

The genius of this novel is the voice. Eli’s narration is poetic and stirring, charming and yet horrifying. I fell in love with him immediately. The first (short) chapter, “The Trouble with Horses,” is his meditation on his brother’s new horse Nimble, his own new horse Tub, and the death of his beloved former horse — a horse he never really gets over.

The first two pages could be used as an example of how any novel should open. They set the stage for everything that comes after: the macho power of the older brother, the mysterious violence of the “job,” the sweet and soulful yearning of the younger brother. They inform us that the story will be told with a mix of tenderness and violence, humor and wit.

Permit me a moment of chauvinistic pleasure: the international applause this novel has garnered is nothing short of amazing. Consider, first: it is a Canadian publication. Tiny Canada, with an English-speaking population about the size of Florida. Consider, second: it is published by a small independent publisher: House of Anansi Press, which, according to one news report, employs fewer than twenty employees. The success of this novel — and a number of other Anansi publications as well — proves that literary quality wins out. This is significant in a time when publishers seem only to be seeking commercial historical fiction.


what defines a literary historical novel. This is a subject that often leads to the drawing of swords


This Historical Novel Society series on the Walter Scott prize has been, in part, a reflection on what defines a literary historical novel. This is a subject that often leads to the drawing of swords, but I agree with Richard Lee that the literary historical novel is a genre apart. I’ve puzzled for years how to define it. That a novel is literary is obvious on the first page. How is that? My hunch is that it simply has to do with sentences. The Sisters Brothers is such a novel, sentence by sentence by sentence.

Unlike most historical novels, literary and otherwise, The Sisters Brothers is fairly short — “a fast read,” full of adventure, amusing characters and OMG horror. But how to describe it? Reviewers have compared it to a Bob Dylan lyric, a Laurel and Hardy film with a touch of Don Quixote, True Grit told by Tom Waits, Cormac McCarthy with a dash of Heart of Darkness. You get the picture. As for myself, I would say it feels like Cormac McCarthy prose with dialogue by Elmore Leonard, as seen through the lens of a Coen brothers movie. In short: beautifully strange.

And — did I mention? — “You have to read this book!”


Sandra Gulland is also an outstanding Canadian author, and you can read about her own books at

Kristen Hannum – A Lesson from the West: Some Literary Fiction Wears a White Hat

As it turns out, even Patrick deWitt, author of the shockingly successful literary Western The Sisters Brothers, is wary of literary fiction. A serious writer and reader, he’d long eschewed novels with plot, preferring voice. But then, he told a Granta interviewer, he realized that reading had begun to feel like homework.

His anecdote sums up exactly what’s wrong with too much literary fiction: 1) it feels like homework, and 2) it has no discernable plot. Readers are supposed to be paying attention to those pearl-like, angst-filled sentences.

Readers are supposed to be paying attention to those pearl-like, angst-filled sentences


I reluctantly agreed to read and review The Sisters Brothers for the Historical Novel Society last year. I hesitated because the book is a Western and I despise Westerns. Worse, it claimed to be a literary Western. I wasn’t alone in my misgivings: The Sisters Brothers was an orphan: no one had initially volunteered to review it.

So I was shocked when I couldn’t put it down and yet didn’t want it to end. I loved The Sisters Brothers. It may have been the best book I read all year.

I’ve since followed its success with pleasure, partly because it’s both a literary historical novel and a crowd-pleaser. Maybe it will persuade others to reconsider the automatic leeriness that comes when the word “literary” is attached to a book, even though that’s a far more rational prejudice than my aversion to Westerns. After all, most of us have tried reading works of serious fiction (you know, art, sentence-driven novels striving for literary merit) that we’ve found to be pretentious, pointless, and dreary.

DeWitt decided to shake up his previously exclusively literary reading list with books that celebrate story and character. And he wrote The Sisters Brothers, about Eli and Charlie Sisters, hit men on their way from Oregon City to Sacramento where they expect to kill a gold prospector named Herman Kermit Warm. The book’s graceful sentences serve to tell a story that’s funny and moves right along. It’s a Western, but it’s far bigger than the West.

By the end of The Sisters Brothers, I realized that my universe had shifted a bit

By the end of The Sisters Brothers, I realized that my universe had shifted a bit; I was seeing reality from a slightly different place. That’s what literature does. DeWitt had opened up something new for me about the human condition; his story is about more than just the fate of Eli and Charlie Sisters. What’s more, the book’s climax is as good a revelation of how toxic wealth is as has ever been written. Really.

Consider Eli’s thoughts on murder. “My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might do just as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?”

Or his longing for love: “I had never been with a woman for longer than a night, and they had always been whores. And while throughout each of these speedy encounters I tried to maintain a friendliness with the women, I knew in my heart it was false, and afterward always felt remote and caved in.”

Despite deWitt’s skill for this kind of insight, he also has fun with sweet and absurd sections, including the widely quoted tooth-brushing scenes, but also the role of the brothers’ mother and their happily ever after.

After I finished The Sisters Brothers, I immediately mailed it to a friend. Not only did she love it, but so did her husband, a guy who generally confines himself to surfing.

The book has charmed both snooty critics and regular readers. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for literary historical fiction. It was a winner at the Canada Council for the Arts’ Governor General’s Literary Awards and it topped Amazon’s 2011 charts. It won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was a bestseller in Canada.

And why not? The best literary novels, after all, from Don Quixote on, have been widely popular. We are, after all, the storytelling animal, the only one, as far as we know. Storytelling is what sets us apart. If your novel doesn’t tell a great story, give it to the mynah birds and professors of postmodern literature. They may not mind. We do.

DeWitt, thankfully, let his storytelling be more important than his angst or his ideas about what literature should be. The Sisters Brothers is a great read, even for people who hate literary novels or Westerns — or even literary Westerns.


Kristen Hannum is one of our most gifted and entertaining reviewers – browse some of her work here. She is an award winning journalist, currently working on a novel.

Patrick deWitt talks about writing

And I really like this trailer:

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