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.
Some of these have the feel of saintly visions. The brothers encounter a silent woman dressed in a white raincoat and blue scarf — the colours of the Virgin.
As adults, each of the brothers meets Asher Ruppta, an unscrupulous landlord from the West Indies running a Rachman-like housing operation. Ruppta tells tall tales of conjurors who fall into trances, of spirits and ghost birds and of a boy who becomes a tree, his skin slowly turning to bark. In one scene a collection of household objects in the boys’ childhood home flies around the room, including a copy of the Penguin Book of Greek Myths.
It is never quite clear how much of this is real and how much the product of sleeplessness, worry or the trauma of being abandoned by their mother. At times it is frustrating. We invest our energies in passages, only to discover they never really happened. On more than one occasion, there’s an unsatisfactory sense of “and then I woke up”.
If this is magical realism, then there is greater satisfaction to be had from those scenes which take place firmly in reality.
Ackroyd’s pen portraits of the intersecting worlds of academia, literary London and Fleet Street are written with relish.
When Daniel becomes an English fellow at his Cambridge college, Ackroyd gleefully describes a scene at high table where senior fellows trade Horatian epigrams and sneer at the recent publications — “The State of Coinage with Relation to the Plays of Philip Massinger” — of young pretenders.
In London, at a party hosted by a publishing house and attended by Daniel and the rest of “the literary mob”, washed-up poets and aspiring literary critics tell each other that they “simply must read Derrida”.
Ackroyd is scathing about the book reviewing racket. Those who give good reviews are “fine critics”. Those who don’t are cretinous: “Oh The Spectator. Terrible circulation. Gale has just appointed some teenage literary editor. Ridiculous.” (This is an in-joke — the “teenager” was Ackroyd himself.)
There is a pointed attack on literary editors who dole out books to reviewers “five or six at a time. As if they were tins of baked beans.” Some of this sounds like personal grievance. It’s certainly enough to make a reviewer nervous. One literary editor is described as “A bit stupid, actually, but friendly enough . . . Very much a journalist.“
Journalists, of course, are held in contempt. At a party across town attended by Harry, who after serving his time on the “Peregrine Porcupine” gossip column has been promoted to news editor, the conversation is somewhat grubbier. Sir Martin Flaxman, editor of the Chronicle, tells Harry that he is proud to be “a muck raker” before asking his protégé: “Is my daughter a good fuck?” No Derrida here.
The brothers, though estranged, continue to cross paths. We are meant to be reminded of the chance encounters and coincidences in the novels of Dickens.
Daniel teaches Bleak House and is writing a book about the intersecting lives of the writers of London: “He had found in the work of 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.” The novel roams over the city: Camden, Notting Hill, Bayswater, Limehouse, Bethnal Green, Mount Street, Highgate, Inner Temple. But if you didn’t know London, you might struggle to distinguish Ackroyd’s Shepherd’s Bush from his Cheyne Walk. His descriptions of the city are so cursory they sometimes feel like little more than stops on the Tube map. Nor do the brothers ever really feel substantial. They are types: the hack, the intellectual, the lost boy. Rounded characters and a sense of place have been sacrificed for a magical realist atmosphere that slips through our fingers.
The three brothers never do inherit the kingdom, return with the golden goose or win the hand of a princess. And in Ackroyd’s strange, amorphous London fairytale, there is no happily ever after.