Three Brothers follows the fortunes of Harry, Daniel and Sam Hanway, born on a post-war council estate in Camden Town. Marked out from the start by curious coincidence, each boy is forced to make his own way in the world – a world of dodgy deals and big business, of criminal gangs and crooked landlords, of newspaper magnates, back-biters and petty thieves.
London is the backdrop and the connecting fabric of these three lives, reinforcing Ackroyd’s grand theme that place and history create, surround and engulf us. From bustling, cut-throat Fleet Street to hallowed London publishing houses, from the wealth and corruption of Chelsea to the smoky shadows of Limehouse and Hackney, this is an exploration of the city, peering down its streets, riding on its underground, and drinking in its pubs and clubs. Everything is possible – not only in the new freedom of the 1960s but also in London’s timeless past.
Ackroyd follows the nonfiction Tudors with a characteristically sly novel juxtaposing the mundane and the mystical in 1960s London. The Hanways are a trio of brothers from working-class Camden Town; each was born in a different year, though all three were born on May 8 at noon. After their mother suddenly disappears, gregarious Harry, scholarly Daniel, and aimless Sam are raised by their emotionally absent father. As they take radically different paths in life, the brothers remain connected, less by affection than by what Ackroyd calls their "invisible communion." Each encounters the same people, including their mother, boorish newspaper baron Sir Martin Flaxman, slumlord Asher Ruppta, and ebullient thief and male prostitute Sparkler. Around them swirls modern London, full of political corruption, literary backbiting, and violence. Yet the London of the past lives on as well, evident in a seemingly ghostly convent, and in schoolyards, subway tunnels, and monuments that still vibrate with history. Each of the brothers seems to embody different aspects of Ackroyd's own biography a segmentation that contributes to their oddly impersonal feel. In contrast, the author's beloved London comes across as warm, coherent, and triumphantly alive. In this city, Ackroyd writes, coincidence is everywhere, anything is possible, and "everything is connected to everything else."