Friday, August 1, 2014
Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd
Three Brothers (2014), by esteemed English historian, biographer, and novelist, Peter Ackroyd, is a blend of satire, murder-mystery, and ghost story. The time period is 1960s London. The book details the lives of Harry, Daniel, and Sam Hanaway, born in cockney Camden Town and raised by their failed author-father. Their mother had run away when Harry was ten, Daniel was nine, and Sam was eight. It marked each of them forever.
Sam is most affected by the loss. He is the kind and sensitive boy who lacks ambition. He is, however, the only brother with a moral sense. After he graduates high school, Sam is content to live with his father, wander the streets of London, and do odd jobs in a monastery inhabited by ghost nuns. He ultimately tracks down his mother, now a prostitute living in a house of ill repute.
Meanwhile, Harry, who drops out of high school at the age of 16 to become a reporter, eventually lands a job at a prestigious newspaper. He marries the bosses daughter and becomes assistant editor.
Daniel, who has always sought escape through books, becomes a professor at Cambridge as well as literary editor of The Spectator. Ackroyd, himself, was once literary editor of The Spectator.
Although the three brothers lose contact with one another, their fates are linked by some unsavory characters. Most notable of them is Asher Ruppta, a slum landlord straight out of Dickens. When it comes to Dickens, Ackroyd wrote the book on him - literally.* Sam is hired by Ruppta to collect rents in his tenement building. There he meets Sparkler, a gay prostitute and petty thief. Sparkler was once friend and lover to Daniel, who hides him from his Cambridge chums. And Harry is linked to Sparkler by way of his wife - a social worker. There are also shady politicians who are skimming the coffers and leading secret lives.
Three Brothers is a romp through the darker side of London - the poor neighborhoods and the gay bars of 1960s London where same-sex relationships were still illegal. Ackroyd pokes fun at the pomposity of academia, the cut-throat world of journalism, and the duplicity of political life.
As Mark Sanderson concludes in The Telegraph:
The waspish vignettes of literary London and fusty academe are a delight. The air is full of poison--and echoes of other Ackroyd novels. He sees the capital as 'a web so taut and tightly drawn' that the slightest movement sets off a chain of events. The repercussions of Mrs. Hanway's profession contain horror and hilarity in equal measure. The brilliant result is the quintessence of Ackroyd.
Three Brothers contains ribald behavior and lewd comments that might insult the sensibilities of some readers. But if one approaches the book as it was intended - as a camp novel sparing no one - then reading Three Brothers is just pure fun.
*Dickens by Peter Ackroyd. Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990. 1195 pages.
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