‘Three Brothers’ by Peter Ackroyd

Three Brothers’ by Peter Ackroyd  (2014) – 246 pages


The growing up of three brothers may not be an earth-shattering subject for a novel, but it could have been a fascinating account of how three sons raised in similar circumstances could turn out so unalike.  I began this novel hoping this actually was the story of three brothers growing up in London.

I grew up in a family in which the only children were us three sons.  From an outsider’s point of view, we three brothers may bear a family resemblance and thus seem quite similar.  However from the inside of our family looking out, it is obvious that we three brothers are quite different from each other, millions of miles apart in personality, attitude, and our very being.

The three brothers in ‘Three Brothers’ also grow up totally dissimilar from each other.  The oldest, Harry, marries into money and finds success on Fleet Street in London as a journalist.  The middle son, Daniel, is gay, doesn’t marry, and becomes a noted literary academic.  The youngest, Sam, is a ne’er-do-well who can’t hold a steady job, but has a special quality that makes him likeable.

The novel starts out strong delineating these different traits of the three brothers.  We also learn some of the family back story.  Their father wanted to be a writer but ultimately settled as a nightwatchman.  Their mother suddenly walked out on the family while the boys were still in grade school.  The beginning of the novel built up my expectations that this would be an involving story of how three very different brothers live in London and interact.

However, about a third of the way through any attempt at character study is forsaken, and the novel becomes mired in this labyrinthine contrived plot involving news magnates, professors, crooked landlords, and prostitutes. Apparently the only way to bring these three brothers back together into this plot is by the sheerest chance.   When coincidence is used as a plot device, the readers know they are in trouble, and coincidence is used all over the place in this novel.   Perhaps the point Ackroyd is trying to make is that for natives, London is a small town and its inhabitants run into each by accident all the time.  I don’t believe that for a moment.

Since Ackroyd evidently gave up on this novel being any kind of character study, all we are left with is this unsatisfying complicated plot that really has nothing substantial to do with the three brothers.  Without a specific subject, the novel is supposed to have a grand subject like the city of London.    However I’ve been to London, and London deserves much more than this cobbled story.


2 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve read a lot of Ackroyd’s I’ve liked, but I don’t plan to read this one. Your review is in line with the others I’ve read. It sounds like he tries to make an “it’s a small place really” point, and firstly it’s not and secondly he doesn’t seem to make the point well anyway.

    Unfortunate, but not every novel can be a winner.


    • Hi Max,
      Yes, I read a couple of Ackroyd’s early novels and thought they were quite good. I remember being quite excited about this one until it got into this bizarre byzantine plot that really didn’t say anything about the three brothers. The first third is fine.


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