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Postwar London: "Three Brothers" roams around the city but descriptions of it neighbourhoods are cursory

Where you have three brothers you have a story. In the fairytales of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, a family with three sons is bound to be touched by destiny.

Each brother will embody a different virtue and all will be seeking their fortunes. The eldest will be industrious, fearless, a wanderer, the middle brother diffident, wily and cunning. But there is invariably something magical about the youngest brother. So it is with Peter Ackroyd's Three Brothers.

There is, from the opening pages, something out of the ordinary about the Hanway brothers. Each was born on the same day — May 8 — with a year between them. There the similarities end. In the best tradition of the fairy story, they are very different characters.

Harry is popular in the playground, a chancer who "whoops with triumph at every goal his team scored". He becomes a cub reporter and later news editor, a tenacious digger of dirt. Daniel is bookish and quick to take offence. He knows he is gay from childhood and remains prickly about the subject as an adult. He is ashamed of his working-class parents and aspires to Cambridge. Sam, the youngest, is a lonely dreamer, a friend to tramps and park bench loiterers. Like other third sons, Sam is otherworldly.

This fairy story begins in the unpromising once-upon-a-time streets of a brick council estate in Camden in the years immediately after the war. The London childhood of the Hanway brothers seems typical enough: earwigs, tadpoles, liquorice, cheese-and-pickle sandwiches, Arthur Mee's children's encyclopaedia, the 11-plus. Then their mother disappears and things take a turn for the mystical.

As the boys grow up, they are visited by uncanny sightings, bad dreams and poltergeist activity. There are standing stones that seem for a moment to float, dead crows, tricks of the light, hallucinations.

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