At first glance, the Hanway boys seem much like any other of their post-war generation: working-class parents, living in the somewhat dilapidated, fog-ridden area of Camden Town in a house the family has owned for the past several years, in a council estate where the daily struggles of existence are still evident five years after the War. Fighting for his marriage after his wife, Sally, abandons him, Philip Hanway ekes out an existence working as a night watchman in the city while maintaining the family as best he can.
At first the three boys seem hitched to their old home, though for more desperate reasons than one would expect. United in an extraordinary way—born at the same time on the same day of the same month, and marked out by some invisible communication between them—Sam, Daniel, and older brother Harry grow up on a landscape of dust and rain and bonfire smoke of oil and petrol, of trams and milk flats and “the distinct but distant roar of London always somewhere around the corner.”
To Philip’s great sorrow, his failed chance to be a writer prompts a series recollections from his youth which leads to his boys—absent their mother—to grow accustomed to looking after themselves. Harry is the most gregarious and thus the most popular. Daniel is more introverted, and Sam, the youngest, seems content to remain on his own. Harry and Sam eventually roam far from the class confines of their youth, yet it is Daniel who becomes more deliberate and circumspect. A studious, pragmatic boy who becomes a university academic, Daniel sees his life as a series of hurdles over which he is obliged to jump.
Gradually the intimacy between the brothers fades. Without the company of his older brothers, Sam becomes aimless, roaming the streets of Camden, drawn to the poor and the homeless, and to a place of shelter where he eventually volunteers, feeling at ease in the company of tramps and wonderers. Daniel, on the other hand, blames his father for “life in a shabby house in a shabby street.” He resents the lack of ambition that consigned the family to this council estate, and he dislikes Phillip’s weary look and detests his air of defeat and resignation. Harry, the most jocular, becomes a journalist for a local Camden newspaper, eventually falling for an attractive girl and moving to Notting Hill.
In evocative tones, Ackroyd steps back in time, describing life in late-1960s England through the prism of Harry, Daniel and Sam’s vivid points of view, including the mystery surrounding Sally’s disappearance, that the modest Philip is unprepared to express in a pattern that eventually defines his relationship with his sons, a relationship doomed to fade. Daniel’s battles, however, so long simmering, and Harry’s rise as a chief news reporter (and his efforts to expose alliances and affinities between Asian property developer Asher Ruppta and Sir Martin Flaxman) show how good intentions don’t always follow though.
Readers will appreciate Ackroyd’s talent for rich period detail: the small yellow brick houses and shops of Camden, faded with grime and decay, to the cheap cafes where the principal resource is “egg, chips and brown sauce.“ The novel works best when it highlights the patterns of association linking the people of the city, creating an image of London as a web taut and tightly drawn where a chance encounter might lead to terrible consequences, a misheard word might bring unintended good fortune, and an impromptu answer to a sudden question might result in murder.
Although I wasn’t always pulled into this story of self-interest, illegal prostitution and bent property developers intent on paying off crooked government officials, I did enjoy what is essentially a tale about familial loyalty as much as it is about the changing mores of the time period. As London grapples, right on the cusp of revolution, the three brothers circle around each other, revealing just how far they will travel from the broken persona of a beaten-down father. In a clever (if unrealistic) twist, Sam is eventually drawn to his mother by a new and instinctive bond of sympathy and perception. It’s quite a transformation and perhaps one of the best aspects of the novel.