In the fiction of Peter Ackroyd, London is always the main character. People are a formality; Albion is the glue that holds everything together. This tight focus and regular productivity could be optimistically thought of as the reason Ackroyd the novelist hasn’t been a forceful presence since the 80s. These days he’s best known for his non-fiction – Three Brothers is only a footnote next to this year’s Charlie Chaplin biography. All I can say is, it deserves it.
The story it tell centers on the Hanway brothers, struggling to rise in the world from their council house beginnings and permanently marked by their mysteriously vanished mother and weary failure of a father. Each boy’s character is clearly delineated, though they lack depth. Harry is ambitious, hardworking and cutthroat; Daniel is scholarly, snobbish and gay; and youngest brother Sam is a dreamy, unmotivated loner. Their only connection is their shared aloofness and that they were each born at the same hour of the same day exactly one year apart from each other.
That is only the first in a litany of coincidences that thread the narrative. Readers have complained about this aspect of Three Brothers but it’s right there in the opening paragraph, it’s the bread and butter of the novel, and if you can accept the first one there’s no reason not to accept the rest. Whether there’s any point in doing so is another matter. Paul Auster plays with chance and fate in a sometimes-delightful, sometimes-eyerolling way. Ackroyd, on the other hand, doesn’t engage with it. He expects you to believe in his fateful London, but if you think of London the same way you think of Paris, Chicago, Reykjavik or any other city, then you’ll probably need more than “Dickens did it first” as a reason to.
Ackroyd has an impeccable talent for painting the streets and society of 60s London but he shows very little ability at pacing. He turns out a near-constant stream of character sketches. Each one is snappily dealt with but at a certain point (rather early on, in fact) the hastily introduced cast start to swim. I got the feeling Three Brothers should be one of those fat Rohinton Mistry novels, but which had somehow been pared down to a smoothly readable but definitely rushed 244 pages. The characters are small, petty and easily dismissed, making it even harder to forge a connection before they exit stage left. Sam, who felt at ease in the company of tramps and wanderers is the only fully realised character on display, purely by dint of ambiguity (the gay thief Sparkler also has some promise). When asked if he’d seen his brothers, Sam answers:
“I don’t think so.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Sometimes I think I see their reflections. Sometimes I think I see them across the street. I see them in my dreams all the time.”
The text is a combination of vaguely satirical social realism with a visionary and mystical setting. But there is no emotional loading to the novel, so when the brothers get involved in the criminal underworld it is impossible to care and when the visions surface they lack intensity. It’s an uneasy mixture and is poorly resolved. Ackroyd’s London intrigues and puzzles at the start, but his characters are a drab and irritating sand in the ointment. It’s clear Ackroyd only needs them as props: …he had found in the work of the novelists a preoccupation with the image of London as a web so taut and tightly drawn that the slightest movement of any part sent reverberations through the whole. A chance encounter might lead to terrible consequences, and a misheard word bring unintended good fortune. An impromptu answer to a sudden question might bring death… And props they remain.
The book needed more work if it wanted to impress. It feels much too swift in execution, like the author had a great concept and hammered it out as fast as possible to meet a deadline. The giveaway is the ending. I can’t discuss it in detail but it is, quite frankly, bafflingly bad. Suffice to say, however self-absorbed Paul Auster can be, he does create a world (something Ackroyd sadly fails at). Coincidence drives it but Auster has the energy to make it seem purposeful. Ackroyd, in the end, handwaves his entire premise. Every intriguing idea brought up in the first hundred pages is ignored – nor does the lack of resolution feel purposeful. It feels muffed. And that makes the whole experience even more meager.
The Plato Papers, which I read a few months ago, was certainly slight but oddly (and very pleasantly) stimulating to the intellect. I was impressed by the amount of care that he’d put into it. Three Brothers feels like the polar opposite. It’s easy enough to read, I’ll give it that, and I did enjoy the first hundred pages, but it gave diminishing returns from there on. I’d say you should seek his earlier works if you want an Ackroyd novel and don’t bother with this one.