This is an odd novel. That statement probably won’t surprise readers who are familiar with Peter Ackroyd’s recent nonfiction — the first two volumes of a projected six-volume history of England, a “biography” of London and another of the Thames River, and an examination of the English fascination with ghosts. Indeed, readers of these works will feel at home with “Three Brothers” (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 244 pages, $26.95) from the very first line: “In the London borough of Camden, in the middle of the last century, there lived three brothers; they were three young boys, with a year’s difference of age between each of them.” First comes the location: not just London, but a specific part of London at a particular time, signaling that place is going to matter a lot as the tale unfolds.
And so it proves. As the novel begins, the boys’ mother “disappears”; in the morning she is there, in the afternoon she is gone. After her disappearance the boys drift apart, their geographic destinations mirroring their psychological lack of sympathy. Harry, the eldest and most unapologetically working class, discovers that words are cheap and can be “manufactured by the yard”; he becomes a journalist landing in Fleet Street.
Daniel, the middle son, tries to shed all traces of his background, eventually working his way to an academic career at Cambridge.
After a brief stint packing groceries, Sam, the youngest, declares the act of working “a form of death” and becomes a seeker and a vagrant; his wanderings often map the seemingly coincidental links among the three in their adult lives.
The plot crackles along briskly and frequently satirically; the characters are drawn in such broad strokes that I often had the sense I was watching a Restoration comedy populated by characters named Lackwit or Fatpurse. But this makes sense because the novel’s main character is London itself, “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 cause death.”
William Faulkner famously remarked that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” With regard to London, at least, Ackroyd would certainly agree; although Sam remarks that in London “Nothing ever sticks. Everything just fades away,” nothing ever completely disappears, either, and at moments the thin membrane that separates past from present becomes permeable and time travel becomes possible.
If you’re looking for a novel with subtle character development and psychological insight into relationships — or a novel with even remotely dimensional female characters — keep looking: “Three Brothers” is not for you. It’s an oddly impersonal novel, combining ghost story and murder mystery with literary pastiche and satire. On its own terms, though, it’s intriguing, a clever romp and a rapid page-turner.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.