Review: Swamplandia!, The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

 

I picked up Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers off this year’s Booker nomination list, and thought I’d give it a try. I was a bit wary, because I’m not really a fan of Westerns or violence, and this book is both. I was pleasantly surprised. While it is violent in places, it’s certainly not revelled in or gratuitous. And while it is a Western, that’s fundamentally a setting rather than a straightjacket. The book is about two brothers, hired killers, who are sent on a mission across the country. On the way they meet and often kill a number of different characters who cause them to question and rethink their own lives. I found this a really powerful book, with the main character’s journey intelligently evoked. It would be easy for the author to tip his hand too early and lapse into bludgeoning the reader, but the shift in the character’s perspective is both believable and interesting. For a book that is “not my kind of thing” in subject matter, I found it very well crafted (not to mention short! Bonus points!). Recommended.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Like DeWitt’s novel, this book treads the border between literary and genre, with hints at magic realism but primarily a realist character-based focus. It’s a book about a family who run an alligator-wrestling theme park in a swamp, and how they cope with the loss of their mother. I was excited to read this book but I found it slow going at the start, as the characters took a while for me to warm to. It’s definitely a book to lose yourself in for an hour or two rather than a page-turner.  But it grew on me, and there were a couple of heart-in-mouth moments, and ultimately I found myself growing to care about both Ava and Kiwi, the two main characters, and to feel for them. I don’t know if it is my favourite book of the year, but it is probably one of those books that is at times a struggle but which pays off in the end. If you like something a little off-beat, I recommend giving it a try. I’ll certainly be keen to read more of Russell’s work.

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