Book review: Three Brothers, By Peter Ackroyd

The capital's eerie side shadows this tale of siblings united, and divided, by a city of ghosts

This peculiar tale opens in a council estate in the north London of the 1950s. Some of the area has been flattened by the war, while the remainder is slowly pulling itself together. Dust, bonfire smoke and smog hang in the air. This is where the Hanway brothers are born.

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Money is scarce and the boys' mother mysteriously disappears. But these hardships do not hold back the two elder brothers. Harry loves newspapers and grows up to be a Fleet Street journalist, while Daniel becomes a Cambridge academic. Meanwhile Sam, the youngest, wanders the streets, where he has visions.

The brothers meet rarely, but are caught up in a scandal with public ramifications. The novel's plot is an exercise in noir, featuring a Rachman-type slum landlord whose suborning of a housing minister entangles each sibling in turn. This unsavoury side of swinging London is well-trodden territory, but Ackroyd manages to make it fresh. Some of this is due to his prose, which is simple yet possesses great consonance and depth.

It is a style that lends itself well to the novel's uncanny overtones. From the start of this story of innocence betrayed it is clear that the boys form complementary parts of a trinity. Harry is extrovert, Daniel studious and Sam mystical. They are separated by a year in age, but all born at the same time of day on the same day of the month. Sometimes they share in an invisible communion of thoughts and feelings.

London has always been a wellspring for literature of all kinds, and writing is one of Ackroyd's themes here. Before penury forced him to work as a night watchman, the brothers' father tried to become a novelist. Harry and Daniel both enter professions that are intimately bound up with storytelling. Ackroyd's best-known work includes his history of the capital, London: The Biography. It presents the city as a place in which the distant past stalks and haunts the present. Some of this features in Three Brothers, but most of the novel disregards the city's revenant presence, dealing instead with a small group of Londoners whose actions have direct consequences for each other.

This foregrounding of causation is made explicit. Daniel branches out from academia and is commissioned to write a book about London writers. During his researches he finds in the 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". Ackroyd's own latest contribution to the London novel marks a further stage of his literary love affair with the city that he conjures so brilliantly in fiction and non-fiction alike.