Book review: Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

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Three Brothers is a surprise, and a welcome one. Most of Peter Ackroyd’s recent books have been biography or history.

Three Brothers

Peter Ackroyd

Chatto & Windus. 246pp. £14.99

He may well have many readers who don’t even know of his early novels, The Great Fire of London, and Hawksmoor. They may know him best as the historian of London and the biographer of Dickens. If so, they will find much to enjoy in Three Brothers, a London novel which is permeated by Dickens. It isn’t Dickensian, in the sense in which that word is usually used. It’s cool and laconic rather than exuberant. But the themes – lost childhoods and crime – are Dickensian, and the novel is suffused with the author’s awareness of the strangeness and often loneliness of the bleak streets of London. There is melodrama and comedy, and this too is Dickensian.

The three brothers are Harry, Daniel and Sam, all born on the same date of the same month one year apart. Their father, who once had literary ambitions, works first as a night-watchman, then as a long-distance lorry driver. Their mother disappeared when they were children, the reason never explained to them. The gap in their lives will never be filled, even though she will play a part in their adult lives.

They grow up in the streets of London, still pitted with bomb-sites – the novel starts in the days of the 11-plus and the main action is set in the 1960s. Harry, the oldest, fails that exam, and becomes a journalist. Sam, the youngest, also fails it, and grows up solitary, a wanderer with no ambition. Daniel is clever; he goes to Grammar School, then to Cambridge, where he becomes a don; he is shy and lonely, also gay, and becomes a notably acerbic reviewer. His career gives Ackroyd the opportunity to 
offer several comic and bitchy portraits of literary life. Daniel also has an affair – of sorts – with Sparkler, a pickpocket, thief and part-time rent boy with clients in high places. There is a touch of the Artful Dodger about Sparkler.

The plot centres on Asher Ruppta, a slum landlord, property developer, and brothel-keeper, with political connections to a junior minister in the Wilson Government; there is an obvious resemblance to the notorious Peter Rachman. Ruppta is an intelligent man with a genial personality, which is how Rachman was described by his biographer. This doesn’t prevent him from bullying his poor tenants. The unworldly Sam finds himself acting, rather bemusedly, as one of his rent collectors.

Harry’s career in newspapers flourishes. He becomes the protégé of the proprietor of the “Chronicle”, Sir Martin Flaxman, a sinister but also preposterous figure, with an acerbic and disapproving wife. There are connections between Ruppta and Flaxman. High-life mingles with low-life. Corruption breeds violence. None of the characters in the novel escapes being marked by this, and the climax is melodramatic.

The most interesting character is Sam, the wanderer. “He doesn’t see anything,” Daniel says. “Not really. He sees what he wants to see. What he intends to see. Sometimes he stares and stares into space. But he’s happy enough, I think. He sees something I don’t see”. “Nutter?” replies Harry. “I don’t know,” Daniel says. “I hope not”. Sam develops a devotion to the Virgin Mary, “Our Lady of Sorrows“; he finds contentment looking after the garden of a convent, which then mysteriously vanishes. There is a hint that Sam may have slipped through a gap in the curtain of time.

This is a novel that is always in danger of falling apart, but manages to escape that fate. The danger comes from the mixture of the realistic with the improbable; it’s held together by the consistency of tone, the elegance of the prose and Ackroyd’s pervasive comic sense. London may really be the chief character as it has been in so much of his work; he is always aware of its buried history, never altogether lost. Daniel is commissioned to write a book about “The Writers of London”. One of its themes concerns “the patterns of association that linked the people together. “ There is an image of London “as a web so taut and tightly drawn that the slightest movement of any part sent reverberations through the whole.” It is such reverberations that this novel sets up. It is a book full of rich and sudden moments of delight.