Magazine article The Spectator

Once upon a Time There Were. .

Magazine article The Spectator

Once upon a Time There Were. .

Article excerpt

Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd Chatto, £14.99, pp. 240, ISBN 9780701186937 If you are going to read a novel that plays with literary conventions you want it written with aplomb. In Three Brothers we are not disappointed, as Peter Ackroyd shows a deftness of touch that comes from being a real master. Here his theme is families. Or rather, it is London. Or rather, it is the use of coincidence as a plot device. In fact it is all three, but perhaps the most important is coincidence.

As a literary device, coincidence is the presence of the author in the novel acting like an ancient Greek god directing events. This is apparent from the start when, in almost fairytale fashion, Ackroyd tells us that the brothers of the title, Harry, Daniel and Sam, were all born on 8 May, but each a year apart, in the 1950s.

From that unlikely claim, coincidences flow thick and fast, as though the convention is being tested to destruction. This might come from Ackroyd watching too many Latin American soap operas, where plots twist and turn with equal implausibility, but as he makes sure we realise, it is also a homage to that other great London novelist, Charles Dickens.

As with a Dickens novel, Three Brothers is set largely in London, starting in a working-class housing estate in Camden Town. There the eldest, Harry, fails his 11-plus and ends up at the local secondary modern school. In real life, this might fill him with self-doubt, but in Ackroyd's fantasy London he becomes a driven and ruthless tough guy, rising from newspaper messenger boy to door-stepping hack and eventually Fleet Street editor. …

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