Towards the end of Three Brothers, the latest novel from British author Peter Ackroyd, a main characters, Daniel, one of the three brothers in the title, writes a book about London. One of the book’s themes “concerned the patterns of associations that linked the people of the city,” and that theme also dominates Three Brothers–a novel about connections and estrangement.
The three very different brothers of the title are born in post-WWII Camden and all share the same birthday but are born one year apart. It’s a bizarre coincidence, just the first in a novel of many coincidences and eerie connections. The boys, Harry, Daniel, and Sam are the product of Philip, a failed writer turned night watchman who married a young woman named Sally. Early in the boys’ childhood, Sally disappears, and it’s assumed–although never discussed–that she’s run off. Later in the novel, that mystery is solved.
Living in a depressing household without a mother, the boys grow apart rather than bond together. Harry, the seemingly resilient, popular, confident oldest boy, dumps school as soon as possible, and begins his meteoric newspaper career as a lowly messenger boy. His life choices are driven by ambition. The middle son, bookish Daniel, is studious, and introspective; his ambition takes a slightly different form. He studies, passes the 11 plus, sails to grammar school and university. Abandoning his humble council house origins, and eventually becoming a successful academic, he cannot embrace his own social and sexual identity.
The youngest brother, Sam is the best human being of the bunch: kind, generous, and yet he’s solitary, has difficulty with social interactions and experiences strange visions. The latter is so much a part of Sam’s life that we don’t immediately know the divisions between reality and fantasy. Yet in spite of Sam’s handicaps, while the novel traces the very different lives of these three brothers, and the choices that shape their sad and lonely lives, it’s Sam’s ability to reach out and forgive that takes this tale in an expanded direction. His choices place him squarely in several mysteries: what happened to his mother, for example and also he becomes involved in the murder of a connective character.
It’s impossible not to consider Dickens with the introduction of one of the characters, the anachronistically named Jackdaw, an “emaciated“ thief/rent-boy/fence, who “operated south of the river in Southwark and Bermondsey. He had a reputation for viciousness,” and has been known to beat and/or “slash” his enemies. London then, be it the London of Dickens or the London of Ackroyd (Ackroyd’s books include a biography of Dickens and a biography of London), remains the same immutable force–a city of vast corruption, poverty, cannibalizing ambition, and many dirty secrets filed away in the offices of the rich and powerful. Ackroyd’s allusion to Dickens is loud and clear in this lecture given by Daniel, traumatized by the sordid viciousness of the literary world who always finds solace in literature:
“What we have to explain, in Bleak House, is the imagery of the prison.” The first supervision had begun on time.
“It is perfectly obvious that, in most of Dickens’s novels, the city itself becomes a form of penitentiary in which all of the characters are effectively manacled to the wall. If it is not a cell, it is a labyrinth in which few people find their way. They are lost souls.”
“But what then,” the young man in spectacles asked him, “do we make on the continuing use of coincidence?”
“That is the condition of living in the city, is it not? The most heterogeneous elements collide. Because, you see, everything is connected to everything else.”
Three Brothers can be viewed as an argument to Dickens’s timelessness and craft. Just as Dickens’s novels include many lost boys: Oliver Twist, Pip, and David Copperfield who all struggle with identity and establishing a place in society, Ackroyd offers us three young men: Harry, Daniel, and Sam–all largely clueless about the invisible forces in the lives as they struggle, flounder and face moral compromise. This is a world of connections, so there’s a direct line from the newspaper office to the slum landlord to the government, and of course, while this is not exactly startling, this intricate web of power is always there impacting the lives of the three brothers in ways they initially do not realize.
There’s a pervading sadness to this tale. The three brothers all launch into vastly different lives, and Harry and Daniel are, in terms of all worldly measurement successful, yet happiness eludes them–perhaps because happiness was never included in their plans. Harry, who trades integrity for success, is lauded by his insufferable crude, coarse employer Sir Martin Flaxman who tells a crowd at a party: “Most [reporters] are arse-lickers. Tame Poodles pretending to be guard dogs. But not Harry. He knows what he is. He likes it.” The irony to that statement is that Harry rises to the top simply because he obeys orders and doesn’t stir the murky waters of the shady corrupt London power-brokers.
Similarly Daniel, who enjoys an academic and publishing career, confides to a friend: “I feel” he said, “that I’m on the sidelines of everything. There’s something really great going on somewhere, but I have nothing to do with it.” Harry and Daniel with their fabricated pasts never quite manage to connect to their lives–their identities are suits of clothes donned for the duration. Sam, who is another Dickens “lost soul” just like his two brothers however, is different. I never quite bought his visions or the eerie connective moments between the three estranged brothers, but it’s Sam’s open generous, ambitionless heart that eventually leads the reader to the novel’s secrets.