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Three Brothers: A Novel by Peter Ackroyd
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Three Brothers: A Novel (2013)

by Peter Ackroyd

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Peter Ackroyd's fascination with London borders on the obsessive. The larger part of his eclectic and prolific output is haunted by the city, and particularly by a quasi-mystical sense - shared by other authors, particularly Iain Sinclair - that every place has an underlying character that survives societal and topographical changes. Ackroyd has been the city's chronicler in his magnum opus - London: The Biography - and its sequels Thames: Sacred River, London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets and the upcoming Queer London. The city provides the backdrop to several of his biographies (for instance the volumes dedicated to Dickens and Wilkie Collins). In his fiction, it not only serves as a setting but is treated almost as another protagonist, equal to the living characters.

Ackroyd's latest novel, Three Brothers, in some ways sums up concerns found in several of Ackroyd's earlier London books. The siblings of the title were, like the author, born and brought up in post-World War II London in (it is suggested) a Catholic household. It is indeed tempting to read their intertwined life stories as a sort of fictional autobiography - particularly in the case of Daniel, the shy literature graduate turned author/critic who slowly comes to terms with his homosexuality.

I read this novel, quite appropriately, over a two-day visit to London. It certainly gripped me. Yet, it felt strangely slight, and I suspect that it is not a book which will stay long with me. Part of its problem is that it tries to be too many things at the same time. At its heart it is a realist novel, which depicts the tough day-to-day life in the years after the war. This realism is reflected in the matter-of-fact third person narrative - detached to the point of blandness. Yet, true to Ackroyd's "psychogeographical" outlook, the plot is driven by remarkable coincidences and by the strange visions of the past experienced by the youngest brother Sam. This technique is not new - Ackroyd himself has used it in Hawksmoor and, a similar approach (translated to Prague) is found in Miloš Urban 's The Seven Churches. Yet, whereas this supernatural element fits those novels' Gothic atmosphere like a glove, here it just feels out of place.

Other elements jostle for the readers' attention. There's a hint of satire of the journalistic world which is vaguely reminiscent of Waugh (although good old Evelyn is much funnier), there is a nod to thriller and crime fiction. At one point there's even a cameo for a poltergeist, which causes a couple of pages of mischief before being dispensed with completely. I tend to like genre-bending fiction, but I ultimately felt that there was too much going on for a novel a mere couple of hundred pages long. ( )
  JosephCamilleri | Jan 15, 2017 |
2.5
Reading this book was akin to being on a roller coaster ride. I was unsure at the beginning, having fun in the middle, and wanting to get the darn thing over with by the end. This is the tale of three London brothers with no affinity with each other or their parents. We are fed their individual stories in separate chapters with very little melding of their lives. There is an attempt to show how they have some connective people in their orbits, but the threads are weak and don't really have much effect on the plot.

It was a book that left me dissatisfied by the end. ( )
  Iambookish | Dec 14, 2016 |
Harry, Daniel, and Sam Hanway were born in Camden Town, a postwar estate in London. Each of the brothers share a birthday, born exactly one year apart. Life however for the boys was not easy, and while once close, as they get older their lives move in different directions. They live lives entirely apart from each other, and yet their lives intersect in a myriad of ways seen and unseen.

I thought that this book started out strong. I liked Ackroyd's writing style and was interested to see what happened to the Hanway boys after a defining moment early in their life. However, as the story progressed I began to feel less engaged. You never really get to know any of the brothers, but it felt almost as if the author was intentionally holding the reader at arm's length. I personally found Harry and Daniel unsympathetic characters. While I don't need to like a character to enjoy a book, if I'm going to like the book, then I least need to be able to engage with the character and due to the author's style, I was unable to do so. The addition of supernatural elements that really went nowhere also detracted from my overall enjoyment. I couldn't quite understand why he included these details as it didn't really add much to the story line, were never explained, and in the end left me confused as to their purpose.

Despite these flaws, I didn't dislike the book. It had some redeeming qualities that kept me reading. I thought the mystery of the critical event that defined their lives was handled well, and I was interested to see how the plot line concerning one of the secondary characters played out. The author's knowledge of London is quite evident, and allowed him to vividly bring the city to life. I've seen a lot of criticism for the number of coincidences and connections that the three brothers shared despite their separate lives, yet for me that was one of the novel's strong points. It added something to the overall atmosphere and claustrophobia of the novel as it moved towards the denouement. I am still puzzling over the ending three days later, and if a book can still have me thinking about it several days after completing it, then it definitely has merit.

Overall, I think this was a good book, but it had some major flaws that impacted my enjoyment. It was my first book from Ackroyd, and while not a raging success, I am interested enough that I'll be sure to try another of his books in the future. ( )
  Mootastic1 | Jan 15, 2016 |
Very Ackroyd. Trundled along ok. Passed it on to someone and then couldn't remember if I'd actually finished it. Went to bookstore to check the end, I had finished it, and now I can't remember it again. 'Nough said.
  Oandthegang | Apr 12, 2015 |
Three Brothers gives a picture of London which while it may be true to the period of the novel, is also very Dickensian. This feature derives from both the geographical description and the characterisation.

The Church of Our Lady of Sorrows crops up often and I felt that I ought to check whether it really existed. It doesn't although the Catholic church in Camden Town is called Our Lady of Hal reflecting a link to a town in Belgium which is a centre for Marian devotion. Crystal Street no longer exists if it ever did but Britannia Street certainly still does not far from Kings' Cross Station.

Characters such as Sparkler could be lifted straight from a Dickens novel.

I found that the tale of the Boy who Turned into a Tree told by Asher to Sam is a central myth in the story. It reflects a mother's love for her child and this is in turn reflected in the fact that it is Sam who finds his mother again and develops an adult relationship with her. Perhaps there is some significance in that which links to the future of each of the three brothers.

Sam, the youngest of the three brothers and the one who more like his father, seems to be the key brother in the story although there is more obviously written about the lives of the other two Daniel and Harry. However each of them has a mystical/supernatural quality and either hears things which others don't hear, or sees things which others don't see. Sam is the best example of this as he sees the statue of the Virgin Mary in the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows weeping.

I enjoyed this novel - the first of Ackroyd's fiction works I have read. ( )
  louis69 | Feb 22, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0701186933, Hardcover)

Three Brothers follows the lives and fortunes of Harry, Daniel and Sam Hanway, a trio of brothers born on the same day in the middle of last century, in a grim council estate in Camden. After their mother inexplicably abandons the family, each boy is forced to make his own way in the world.

     From the bustling cut-throat world of Fleet street, hallowed London publishing offices, and the wealth and comfort of Chelsea, to the smoky shadowy streets of Limehouse and Hackney, this is a trip around the city, down its streets, riding on the tubes, at a very particular moment of history, and unusually for Ackroyd's fiction, all within living memory. London is the backdrop and the connecting fabric of these three lives, reinforcing Ackroyd's grand theme that history and the city both makes and creates us, surrounds and engulfs us.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:30 -0400)

"Three Brothers follows the fortunes of Harry, Daniel, and Sam Hanway, a trio of brothers born on a postwar council estate in Camden Town. Marked from the start by curious coincidence, each boy is forced to make his own way in the world--a world of dodgy deals and big business, of criminal gangs and crooked landlords, of newspaper magnates, backbiters, and petty thieves. London is the backdrop and the connecting fabric of these three lives, reinforcing Ackroyd's grand theme that place and history create, surround and engulf us. From bustling, cut-throat Fleet Street to hallowed London publishing houses, from the wealth and corruption of Chelsea to the smoky shadows of Limehouse and Hackney, this is an exploration of the city, peering down its streets, riding on its underground, and drinking in its pubs and clubs. Everything is possible--not only in the new freedom of the 1960s but also in London's timeless past. "--… (more)

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