Brothers In Harms …. Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd
……………………Four nights a week millions of us in the UK sit down to watch the TV soap opera detailing the lives, loves and discovering-that-the-woman-you-thought-was-your-sister-is-actually-your-mother-making-the-creep-who’s-just-attacked-your-wife-your-brother revelations that make up the London kitchen-sink drama that is EastEnders. My family are among those millions……and it’s awful, mostly sounding like it’s been scripted by cut and pasing a years worth of tabloid headlines and then getting it polished up by a committee at the end of a night out doing the legendary Circle Line Pub Crawl (i.e. seriously pissed up!)
As they watched, I was reading a stylish, engaging London kitchen-sink drama, and who is better qualified to write that than Peter Ackroyd, author of among other innumerable things, biographies of The Thames and also of London itself! And he puts those qualifications to great use, for Three Brothers is a cracking book!
Born a year apart on the exactly the same day and time in May, the brothers Harry, Daniel and Sam Hanway begin life in the humble surroundings of 1950’s Camden Town. Their father is a disappointed and soon to be disillusioned man of literary ambition and their mother mysteriously disappears when the boys are young. So they essentially bring up themselves and each other, shaped in part by their personalities, in part by the streets that surround them and in part by their respective roles within the family.
The story follows their lives in alternating chapters as they grow up and grow increasingly apart. Harry moves into the world of journalism, Daniel into Cambridge academia and Sam drifts onto the streets of London. Their life stories are driven by their very different characters, Harry’s naked ambition, Daniel’s inverted snobbery and Sam’s introversion, which on the one hand drives them down very separate roads from a relatively young age and yet their lives are still interwoven, as if the unseen hand of fate is continually threading their lives together. This weaving their fates together could have been trite and tenuous, but it isn’t. Peter Ackroyd connects up their lives in ways that the characters themselves rarely see, but for the reader, it’s done just often enough, and in just the right places, for it to be a very clever, and very effective plot device.
And it’s all encompassed by the almost sinister and very harsh character of London itself. But it’s less about the city as a place in this book and more about the characters it attracts. It’s a city of risk, of top dogs, underdogs, chancers, winners, losers, bullies and victims. There’s an unsavoury underbelly of racism……. corruption……. racketeering……. prostitution……. you name it, if it’s unpleasant, the London of ‘Three Brothers’ has someone doing it! And those ‘someone’s’ are a collection of great, but dark and unsavoury characters, such as Asher Ruppta the corrupt slum landlord, and Sir Martin Flaxman a newspaper proprietor vile enough to make you cringe ( though perhaps that’s par for the newspaper proprietor course!!)
The only negative for me was that much as I loved the narrative and the characters, at times I found the style of the novel slightly cold. In those biographies of the Thames and of the City, Peter Ackroyd’s style of mixing an almost forensic, scientific approach to facts, with prose which was descriptive and imaginative really brought the river, and the streets to life. Yet in Three Brothers, that same style at times seemed to have the opposite effect, and for me it lacked a little bit of feeling and emotion and occasionally it drained the book of a sense of the feeling behind the menace or the helplessness or the despair. But it’s a relatively minor quibble, for the narrative fairly sweeps you along and for all the unpleasant characters and odd characteristics of the Hanway brothers, I was still riveted by the story of their lives.
Throughout the book there’s an air of loneliness and detachment. Even in the midst of a crowded city like London, the book creates a rather sad, lost in a sea of faces feeling for each of the Three Brothers. It’s that as much as anything that gives it such a gritty realistic feel, and combined with the fact that the story of each brothers life is rich and varied enough to keep you engrossed from start to finish, overall it makes ‘Three Brothers’ a terrific novel.
And while it might be damning it with the faintest of praise, Peter Ackroyd delivers a story here that the scriptwriters of East Enders can only dream of! If only my family were watching stuff as good as this it would be a much better use of their four hours a week!
Peter Ackroyd’s Three Brothers was published by Vintage. I bought my copy.
I don’t remember where I first read or heard of the book but I think it was either the review at A Life In Books or Alan Massie’s review in The Scotsman. If you are interested in finding out more about the book then I’d recommend both reviews