“In the London borough of Camden, in the middle of the last century, there lived three brothers…”
HISTORIANS should always write at least one novel set in their own era. They have the training for detail to record the now.
And this being Peter Ackryod, biographer of London, of the Tudors, of Dan Leno and Limehouse, of Chaucer and Blake, you might want his fiction to be based on a true story but it quickly becomes apparent that is pretty unlikely. Brothers is a crimo. You can feel the similarities with the London racketeer Peter Rachman – which would be a good plot, but here is just so much London pea soup.
Ackroyd shuffles around Camden Town like it is his own backyard, which it probably is. The 1950s and 1960s are also his time – he was born in 1949. He traces the fates of three young brothers for whom the usual clichés of the 1960s have not materialised. One character even asks what does it matter if he is living in the 1960s?
The detail as you might expect is excellent. This is a repressed, post war, bombed out, rent, in both senses, London. Notting Hill is in a state of “decay and dilapidation”. Even the writing style is of the period, a style since taken over by TV and soap operas. Without being an overt application for a TV series, it is at heart desperate to be TV and very good it might be too with its sinister, dark edges of crime, of poverty, of pre-Murdoch newspapers, university dandies and the mad or evangelist brother.
You smell the era in: “Wilkin lived with his wife Phyllis, a middle aged philologist, in a semi detached house close to the railway station. They had two Persian cats, and the house smelled of damp and pet food…Mrs W served him small portions of unappetising food”. You yearn to see her grimacing as she proffers a meat pie.
Every now and then you get flashes like: “You look like a frowning soup plate” or this historical research inside a handbag: “It was a capricious handbag, wrought out of leather dyed purple and with an interior lining of green silk. It smelled of mints and nail varnish and it contained many half empty packets of nuts and sweets as well as bus tickets, paper handkerchiefs and assorted items of cosmetics.”
There is an interesting juxtaposition here of skills, the historian, the period piece, a backdrop, some 1960s satire. The historian Ackroyd decants his plot abruptly between events. Coincidence and random events shatter the brothers lives. Some of them quite unbelievable. Even if he had of laid the groundwork. The coincidences of living in the London villages in the period may well have been a feature of communities then but now seem very distant, even more impossible.
Novelists work with emotions and motivations, the depth of the subjective which is not an option for an academic trapped within a discipline of facts and proof.
In even the most elemental of the detectos-with-a-gun sagas you know the narrator’s response. A waitress comes over and you know he will he jump her, or shoot her, or order eggs and coffee and say thanks and go home to his disabled wife. It must be one or the other, otherwise there would be no waitress. With Ackroyd’s large cast you are not so sure, which is a mistake. The more so, when he avoids the kinds of confrontations that perhaps a woman dramatist might relish.
Eventually all this catches up with him and he has to hack and swipe his way out of his own battlefields until he reaches a finale that he probably would not have wanted to arrive at from where he started.