Three Brothers, by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99, 346 pages
Born in London in 1949, Peter Ackroyd is a connoisseur of the city’s dark history and labyrinths of crime. His third novel, Hawksmoor (1985), imagined that churches built in the 18th century by Nicholas Hawksmoor formed an occult design. Other novels have elaborated on London legends associated with Thomas Chatterton, the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee and the Victorian music hall performer Dan Leno. In both his fiction and non-fiction, London is imagined by Ackroyd as a grim place where the likes of Jack the Ripper and the brothers Kray skulked. His trick is to make this shady past impinge, spookily, on the present.
His 15th novel, Three Brothers, opens in shabby northwest London in the mid-1940s. Self-confessedly autobiographical, it draws on Ackroyd’s own upbringing in an East Acton council house. An Angela Carter-like fantasy tone is established from the outset: “In the London borough of Camden, in the middle of the last century, there lived three brothers.” Harry, Daniel and Sam Hanway, born within a year of each other at the war’s end, come to adulthood on the estate amid some hardship. Their mother, a prostitute, has abandoned them to their father, a nightwatchman.
Ackroyd (whose own parents separated) dilates knowingly on the social embarrassment caused by humble birth. The Hanway boys dream of escape from the council estate, where their father’s “faint cockney accent” is at times shameful to them. Daniel, who is gay, wins a place to read English at Cambridge (as did Ackroyd), where his ambition is to write a book on the opium dens of Victorian London. At all costs he must rise above his background and leave his mark on the world.
In precisely modulated prose, Ackroyd follows the fortunes of the brothers in the wider world. Harry, socially ambitious, excels as a local journalist before moving to west London, where he marries a newspaper magnate’s beautiful daughter. Sam, by contrast an introverted and difficult man, has some sort of developmental disorder (perhaps Asperger syndrome) and is prone to retreat into himself and evade society. Among waifs and strays at least he feels at home, and is content enough to find a job helping the homeless in a London convent. A number of alcoholic toffs and other scufflers and chancers orbit around him. Helpless to resist, Sam is later cajoled into becoming a dogsbody for a crooked landlord whom many would like to see dead.
Along the way, Ackroyd vividly conjures the dark alleys and vacant lots of 1970s Limehouse and Hackney. His pitch is urban, jagged: East End gangster memoirs, Gothic shockers and pulp fiction all add to the novel’s heady mix of influences. The prose is distinguished by its pithy turns of phrase and acute observation: a nun has an “expression of brutal amiability”; a politician exudes a “sort of charmless bonhomie”. Three Brothers, an amalgam of social satire and noirish thriller, is vintage Ackroyd.