Peter Ackroyd’s latest novel narrates the early lives and careers of three eponymous brothers, who grow up in postwar-London. Harry Hanway, the eldest, is an ambitious hack, navigating the treacherous paths of Fleet Street; Daniel, the second eldest, excels in school and soon finds himself an academic at Cambridge University; and Sam, the youngest, is something of a black sheep, who divides his time between hallucinating, speaking with nuns, and going to the park to feed vagrants as though they were pigeons. A brief look at his biography tells us that these three career paths --- journalist, scholar and oddball --- are all ones that have been well-trodden by Ackroyd himself.
The author’s love of London is felt everywhere. Scenes of London’s gay subculture and of the hypocrisy of the literary world fizzle with vitality. The book is as much a hymn to the city as it is the somber story of three young men trying to make up for the gaps in their lives. After the mother of the three boys disappears early in their lives, and their father becomes an increasingly distant figure, each of them is let loose to follow their fortunes in this bustling metropolis, like dogs that have been let off the leash in Hyde Park. There is a nostalgic charm to the whole thing, as encapsulated by the wonderful cover picture of three teenagers gathered around a lamppost in the ’60s.
"THREE BROTHERS is a creditable novel. The three plots tick pleasantly along, and there are enough surprises to keep this reviewer from falling asleep."
No doubt we are supposed to believe something terribly important is being said about Britain’s past, but I assure you, “nostalgic charm” is much nearer the mark. Indeed, the novel grates most when it takes itself too seriously. Daniel rides a train to Liverpool, and Ackroyd writes, “The tunnel had been bored through the London Clay, laid down some forty million years before. He was traveling within prehistory, held up by the remains of an unimaginable past.” This is an awfully grandiose way of talking about something as banal (and unreliable) as the National Rail.
The self-seriousness of moments such as this makes me fear Ackroyd does not enjoy the passages in his book that ought to bring the most pleasure. For instance, an elderly woman’s description of marital bliss reads like this: “He would handle me[…]as if I were a church organ. Pushing bits in, pulling bits out. And all the time paddling with his feet.” If that’s not a joy to read and a contender for the Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award, I don’t know what is. More fun is to be had in Ackroyd’s treatment of mortality. Whenever a character in the book grows tedious, the author bumps him or her off with some implausible murder or suicide. An admirable novelistic practice, it is only a shame the real world doesn’t dispose of people who have outstayed their welcome in quite the same way.
In all, THREE BROTHERS is a creditable novel. The three plots tick pleasantly along, and there are enough surprises to keep this reviewer from falling asleep. Whether he knows it or not, Ackroyd’s greatest gift to the world of letters is an incident that occurs early on in the story. Philip, the father of the three boys, attempts to write a novel, but gives up and places the manuscript in a biscuit tin, where it remains for the rest of his life. This gives occasion for the most perfect of euphemisms. From now on, whenever I am called upon to review a second rate work of fiction, I will simply say “should have stayed in the biscuit tin, I’m afraid” and spare myself the trouble of a lengthy write-up.
Reviewed by Frederick Lloyd on March 21, 2014