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Sebastian Faulks is a one of those authors with a rare talent. He has the literary skills to write highly readable, accessible books, the imagination to come up with plotlines which are both realistic and original and - most important of all - the talent to create life-like characters that leap off the page and appear to the reader as living, breathing beings.
In Engleby, the character in question is Mike Engleby, the narrator of his own memoirs. When we first meet Mike, he is a young boy about to head off to a posh public school, where he is looked down on because of his background and upbringing. We then follow his path through university, his subsequent career and life in general. Yet, no matter what happens, the past always casts a long shadow over everything Engleby does.
Like many books by Faulks, you can sometimes wonder where the plot is or ponder the point of the book. In many ways, it doesn't have one. On face value, it appears to be an ordinary tale of an ordinary person making their way through life. Engleby suffers the same ups and downs, the same career highs and lows; the same disappointments as everyone else. So what?
Yet dig deeper and Engleby is so much more than just a tale of one man's life or a damning portrayal of the British education system. It is a tale of lost youth and wasted opportunity. The atmosphere is one of wistful longing for the past, when life seemed simpler and full of hope; of the disappointment and tragedy of life so much potential remains unfulfilled.
Don't run away with the idea that the book is in anyway depressing, however. Although the subject matter can become a little heavy at times, it is never dull. This account of a seemingly ordinary life sucks you in and doesn't let go until the final page is read. There is a morbid fascination in watching the ups and downs of someone else's life, and as the story unfolds, you become increasingly aware that things are not right and start to worry for the fate of some of the characters.
In truth, it's not all that difficult to work out where the plot is heading (and in fairness, it's not meant to be). This is one of those books where the journey is more important than the destination. As a fellow traveller in Engleby's life, we are privy to his innermost thoughts; yet even these prove somewhat intangible leaving the reader whether you can truly know anyone - even yourself. Engleby is somewhat slippery when it comes to the subject of his own past, and is not always honest with either the reader or himself. There is a line uttered by the Joker in the superb graphic novel The Killing Joke which runs something like this "If I have to have a past, I prefer to make it multiple choice". Such a quote could easily have come from the mouth of Mike Engleby.
This was one of those books where you become so engrossed in the life of the main character that you feel an almost tangible sense of sadness when you close the book for the final time. Mike Engleby is a strange character, a mass of contradictions and with some pretty unlikeable character traits. Intolerant, insufferably superior and rather strange, he nevertheless also manages to be likeable and charismatic (at least seen through his own eyes). Although he can be chilling, cold and rather creepy, it's hard to do anything but actually quite like him. This sense of emotional attachment to an otherwise unattractive character is a real triumph of the writer's art and increases the emotional impact of the whole book.
Amidst all this tragedy and sadness, Faulks even manages a happy ending of sorts. Not an "And they all lived happily ever after" conclusion, but one that remains true to the tone of the rest of the book, whilst providing a glimmer of hope amidst the gathering gloom.
As well as an excellent central character, Faulks also imbues the book with a tremendous sense of time and place. Much of the early sections take place in the 70s and 80s and Faulks superbly recreates the feel of that era. He doesn't do this in a lazy fashion (by scoffing at the fashions or the ideas, or pointing out how ridiculous early mobile phones were.) Instead, it's through the small details that he effortlessly weaves into his descriptions of people, places and mind-sets. Indeed, these opening sections are amongst the most powerful and evocative (for someone like me, a child of the 70s) and as the plot moves forward in time, some of this richness is lost. This, though, is entirely excusable within the context of the overall plot and there are perfectly logical reasons for it happening. It's also arguable that modern readers will be more familiar with this era, so their memories need less prompting.
The one criticism I had of the book was that it was slightly too long. As with so many modern novels, it carried on for about 50 pages longer than necessary, which slightly marred its overall effectiveness. Although some of the information in this extended coda is needed to round the book off, it could have been truncated and given far greater impact.
Outside of Birdsong, Engleby is probably one of Faulks' most accessibly novels. If you can get over the seemingly directionless, meandering narrative then you will find a book which is compelling and enjoyable in some slightly indefinable way.
© Copyright SWSt 2012
Faulk's book Engleby is another deep book that requires the reader to allow plenty of undisturbed time to get through it. So far I've read a lot of his earlier books and tackled this over three days of intense concentration with plenty of coffee and a dictionary by my side. Both were needed but did the book leave me as moved as his earlier ones have or was it a washout?
Inside the story.
I couldn't say 'plot' with this as the entire book is written in a form of diary by the character of Mike Engleby, starting in the 1970's and moving back and forwards between his early years and his present as a student at Cambridge University. He doesn't ever call it by name, but my brother lectured there and it's hard to miss anyway with the clues that are dropped. Why he never gives away the name is part of his character and the air of secrecy that he perpetuates throughout his narrative.
From his early years of poverty which he talks about with something akin to pride, his memories of his father are of being beaten and those of his mother and sister are given without any warmth. It's almost as if he's saying 'here I am, a product of my times, take me as I am.' The use of I becomes annoying at times until you stop seeing it. The brain must skip over it as; in retrospect it's used so many times.
Mike goes to grammar school but is then given a scholarship to a public school called Chatfield where he is picked on, bullied and beaten daily. He gets by here by trying to bribe and sell goods stolen from shopkeepers, other boys and anyone he can take advantage of. Any pity his ordeals engender are soon turned back when his bullies leave school and he, in turn, becomes a bully. But this part of the story in reached in stages and we first encounter Mike Engleby at Cambridge, where he becomes infatuated with a girl called Jennifer whom he pursues with no success. By managing to stay on the fringes of her group, we learn more about both Mike and Jennifer, though already the reader starts to wonder whether Mike is capable of telling the truth.
When Jennifer goes missing suspicion eventually falls on Mike and he deals with this by obfuscation, something his character excels at. In some ways his time at Cambridge is punctuated by his observations on his peers, teachers and the politicians shaping the future of the seventies and early eighties. The reader also gets to see more of his disingenuous nature as he sails through life without any meaning, getting by on his cleverness and a photographic memory. This will also aid him later on in life.
As the story progresses and Mike has to make a living for himself, portions of his early life are touched upon; depending on what Mike wants to tell the reader. His later life will bring him into contact with diverse characters and his drink and drug excesses will land him in more trouble than he can handle, leading to eventual hospitalization. This is where the question is asked- is he wicked, misunderstood or a true misogynist.
Although I've already touched on Englesby's character, he deserves a lot more since the book is almost completely about his character and observations. The book jacket has an interesting point when it says that the book can be read as a lament for a generation and the country it failed, or a poignant account of the frailty of human consciousness. It's easy to say that such a person with a background like that of Mike's is doomed to failure. But this is an erudite man who can still get through life on the strength of his lies.
This is a man who stole Jennifer's diary and read a lot of things about his character that should have made him either furious or bent on changing the rough edges of his persona. He's a sloppy dresser, wears his hair long and straggly (not fashionably straggly), drinks too much, takes too many drugs, cannot mix with his peers and generally makes a nuisance of himself. It's hard to find any redeeming qualities about his character yet it's almost impossible to put the book down; we wonder how he will manage in a grown-up world.
In his own words he feels very little for anyone. His relationships are almost nil and his friends are mostly drunken contempories. If we can believe him he has a girlfriend he lives with for a while, chosen more for her lack of passion than any love. His adult character manages to become a newshound and it's here he meets some of the famous people of the times, Ken Livingstone, Margaret Thatcher and Jeffrey Archer. This is where Faulks has been so clever with his characterization. You can almost believe in this, to the point when Mike's observations are darkly witty. I could scarcely believe anyone would make up such a lie and not be caught out.
Other characters move through the pages with almost indecent haste. There are some nice cameos, but overall the character development is on Jennifer, Mike's nearest friend, Stellings and the doctor's who later are meant to treat Mike in the asylum. Faulks is known for his interest in mental illness so I was a bit surprised that it took most of the book before anyone questioned Mike's sanity. Even then it could be put down to a combination of drink and drugs. However, when Mike stands trial for murder, the question is finally addressed in full. Is Mike Engleby insane, psychotic, or a product of his generation, a doped-out has been with an overbearing ego? Finally we see the truth, or do we? Faulks offers the reader a different ending, one that calls into doubt everything we have read so far.
This book pushed me to the limits of understanding with its depth, the black humour and the disturbing character of the hero/villain of the piece. The prose is scattered with words I had to look up the meaning of and I'm not that unread that I can't get the word in it's context. I had to be sure of what I was reading as the author, Faulks, may write the words but his character is writing the story in diary form. This gives it an intimacy as well that could easily be mistaken by the reader with pity.
There is a part in the book where Mike is at Chatfield and he sees the asylum of Longdale where he is overwhelmed by the sight of stooped old men, muttering to themselves and drooling; they both frighten and awake something in him we don't see until much later in the book. Faulks has written this so cleverly that I was stunned by the way he had laid out the plot with such moments gifting the narrative with tiny touches of greatness. I truly believe that Faulks is a master of any genre but has excelled in this one with the period it covers and the way it can be read. The observations of a generation lost between the 'Hippies' and the 'Yuppies' is profoundly moving at times and darkly funny at others. The music of the era sings through the prose with memory sparking in me and anyone else who lived through these awkward times. In some ways our generation was a mixed one and a hanger-on from later ideals.
Faulks brings us down to earth with a bump. The book ends, the reader has to decide if the ending is possible or acceptable. Whatever way we go the journey has been a tough one but well worth the read. Like him or hate him, the author is already a legend in his own time, I can't wait to read his next book.
My copy was a library one and is in hardback. I'll be buying the paperback with my next voucher or cheque. At £5.83 it's worth the money for a slice of history in the making. I believe the author is already required reading in some schools and will be a modern classic before long.
Available in hardback -342 pages long.
Thanks for reading my review.
Sebastion Faulks is probably best known for his 1993 novel 'Birdsong' - a novel of war and erotic love, which sold over 3 million copies. 'Engleby' was first published in 2007, as Faulk's eighth novel, and it is a million miles from the drama and agony of the trenches. As with many of the best novels, a lot of the main character's story echoes the life of the author. Sebastian Faulks was born near Reading in 1953. He attended the prestigious public school Wellington College in 1966 and in 1970 won an open exhibition to read English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. After university Faulks worked as a journalist in London. As we will see, his life is reflected in the character of Engleby.
When we first meet Mike Engleby we leap to the conclusion that we have found a working class hero, and perhaps think back to the likes of 'Room at the Top' or 'Alfie'. Engleby is a working class boy made good, through a combination of his intellect and his amazing memory, which have taken him from the poorer terraces of Reading to the imposing colleges of Cambridge University, via the local grammar school and a scholarship to a prestigious public school. The story is narrated in the first person, through Mike Engleby's diaries, starting in the 1970s where we discover Mike Engleby as a highly regarded English student at Cambridge.
At first glance, Engleby seems to have everything a successful Oxbridge student could want; a lovely girlfriend called Jennifer, strong male friendships, memberships of all the 'in' student societies - but gradually the reader starts to question Engleby's presentation of these facts. He is always socialising, but never seems to have a conversation; he spends a lot of time with his girlfriend at events, clubs and history lectures, but is never alone with her; the reactions of his lecturers and fellow students seem strange - they almost seem to be avoiding him. Faulks is subtly and gradually letting us realise that we are actually reading the diary of a sad loner; a strange young man who hangs around the edges of everybody else's parties and lives - more of a stalker than a lover, more avoided than befriended.
As the novel develops we learn that Engleby was physically abused by his father and bullied mercilessly for years by the prejudiced public school boys. We understand that the blue pills that he pops into his mouth compulsively are there to maintain his mental health rather than to give him a student high - and as we read on, we become more and more uncomfortable with the whole idea of Engleby - is he real? Is he sane? Is he dangerous? The shocking disappearance of Jennifer brings all of our fears to the fore, especially as we learn that Engleby has somehow stolen her diary and hides it in his toilet, where he memorises every line and reads it compulsively every day. Although Engleby himself is one of the major suspects in the police investigation, they never find the diary or a body, and the case is eventually dropped.
As his life continues after university, with the memory of Jennifer still haunting him, we know that we are not reading about a character on the normal spectrum of sanity. Engleby's career in journalism takes him to the Brixton Riots, to interview Thatcher, Sir Ralph Richardson and Ken Livingstone - Jeffrey Archer comes to his parties ... or does he? By this time the reader knows enough to question everything.
Can Mike Engleby really be a stalker and a murderer, or is it all in our imagination? Faulks keeps us guessing. As Engleby himself writes at the beginning of his diaries "It's only page two and already I'm signalling that I'm using one of the laziest and most devalued devices of modern literature: the unreliable narrator".
Mike Engleby is a mixture of the snobbish, the deeply unpleasant, the creepy and the sad. One minute you are feeling the pain of a small boy nicknamed 'Toilet' at boarding school who is ritually bullied and held underwater in a freezing cold bath every night - the next minute you are faced with the student who sneers at those who use incorrect grammar in conversation. Sebastian Faulks has created a character with real depth, and without even realising it, the reader is suddenly looking into the mind of madness. It is easy to become the amateur psychiatrist as you read the story - hmmm ... Engleby never bonded with his family ... he was beaten by his father, rejected by everyone throughout his childhood - AhHa! he must have an attachment disorder, which explains his lack of empathy! The way the Faulks allows the reader to be drawn into the character, to make their own discoveries and to draw their own conclusions, is the secret of this book's success.
The novel has a hugely detailed background; riddled with evocative music from the 70s, Mike Engleby's life is lived against the music of Roxy Music, Velvet Underground and Procol Harem. The book is riddled with political activism and set in a social group whose life is rich in literature and culture. Comments on literary theory, philosophy and classical music are dropped into the narrative, almost without the reader noticing. It is the details of the book that contribute to making it such a satisfying read; this is not just a whodunit - it is the analysis of a deeply troubled individual, a snapshot of different classes in a society that changes over the course of three decades.
Engleby was first published by Vintage in 2007
342 pages, ISBN 9780099458272
Also posted on Helium
Engleby is a novel by the fantastic author Sebastian Faulks following the life of teenager from working class family who goes from a quiet, intelligent young boy who is bullied from an early age to a mentally disturbed man. The novel entails decades of often far inbetween diary accounts from Mike Engelby himself, the only regular accounts during his university days, when events of most importance takes place...
I don't want to ruin it for anyone but the book deals with fascination, stalking and murder. I think the book is a real masterpiece with Sebastian's ability to inhabit the character so well and write accounts so realistically. Descriptions and background knowledge are top notch especially in the 'mystery' university that is continualy refercenced (it's Cambridge by the way). But Sebastian Faulks is no one trick pony and if you will take a quick look at his work he is also author of the latest James Bond novel which is an impressive feat when compared with the style of this novel.
I think what I liked about this book best was how it kept me guessing at what exactly was going on. For a while it seemed as if nothing at all was going on in the novel but it was pleasant. But there were plenty of twists to come later on... I also liked how we were given incite into our diarist Engelby nearer the end. As the author of the accounts that we are given we know what Engelby thinks of himself and of other people but have no clue how he is looked upon by other people. One of the most interesting parts for me is reading Engleby's account of a dinner party in which he threw together an outfit which he deemed okay looking and thought himself a success at chating with the other party guests, only to have this account smashed to pieces later with host's account of the aforementioned event later on...
It's a book that I have read twice now and whilst perhaps potentially upsetting and disturbing at moments it is extremely compelling reading and I am sure I will read it again.
Sebastian Faulks is a veteran of many best selling novels and I am always tempted to pick up a new book by him when I spot it on the shelves.
His early novels Birdsong and Charlotte Grey focussed on war stories but over the past few years he has branched out and proved time and time that he is an extremely versatile author.
Engelby is the story of our hero(???) Mike Engelby who is the lead character of the novel.
The story spans a period of roughly 50 years from the 1960s to the present day and is mainly told through the eyes of Mike Engelby using a first person narrative technique.
The story commences in the 1970s when Mike Engelby, a working class boy from an impoverished background has, through hard work and intelligence won a scholarship to Cambridge. It is clear from the beginning that he is a bit of a strange one - in keeping with the time he drinks and takes copious amounts of drugs - but as the story is told by him you are led to believe that this is normal for students at the time.
Normally I dont like it when a story jumps around in time as this one does - going back to Engelby's time at public school (again on a scholarship!) and even earlier. Some of the horrible cliches relating to public school such as bullying are described and you begin to feel sympathy for Engelby.
Early on in the novel you discover that Engelby becomes infatuated with Jennifer - a beautiful History student at Cambridge. He manages to become part of her group of friends and spends lots of time with her but their relationship is very hard to understand!
When Jennifer goes missing (not a spoiler this is on the back of the book) the mystery deepens and we see the search and resulting events through the eyes of Mike.
The characters within the book are strong but, probably because you see then through the eyes of Engelby you don't really get to know them. And while you really get to know Engelby I wouldnt say that you will like him in particular! Although I got the impression that he is a phenomenly clever guy with lots of talents.
I dont want to ruin the plot for you so wont say any more about what happens. Just to say that this kept me gripped until the very end of the novel and I was surprised at the twist.
Faulks writing style is gripping and forces you to be sympathetic to the main character.
He covers such issues as bullying and child abuse - but in a slightly removed manner so that the horror of what may have happened is slightly removed. Faulks also manages to make the book funny in places - which is not what I expected from a book which talks about the disappearance of a pretty female student on the cover!
Suffice to say that I read this in 24 hours - couldnt put it down - a fantastic read, and one that leaves you, dare I say it feeling a little sad.
Available from all good book sellers for £6.99 (382 pages)
Sebastian Faulks is a well regarded writer with many fine books on his CV including Birdsong (1993) Charlotte Gray (1998) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001). He seems to be always looking for new challenges in his writing and recently in 2008 he became the latest author to write an official James Bond novel 'Devil May Care', at the request of the trustees of the estate of Ian Fleming. Engelby written before the Bond novel in 2007 once again proves his versatility as a writer.
In 'Engleby' Sebastian Faulks skilfully introduces us to the life of Mike Engleby. His story is gradually revealed and the reader gets drawn in to a disturbing world of obsession and cruelty. Engleby is a poor working class boy growing up in a dysfunctional family in the 50's. Because of his academic ability he gains a scholarship to public school and later a place Cambridge. You might think that things have worked out well for Engleby but he is not an ordinary boy, physically abused by his father and emotionally disconnected from his mother and sister, even at a young age Engleby finds it difficult to relate to others. This sense of alienation is heightened further by the physical bullying he experiences at boarding school and by the time he reached adulthood Engleby is truly an outsider not being able to easily empathise or connect emotionally with others.
While at university in the 70's Engleby becomes attracted to Jennifer a vivacious fellow student. He tries his best to get to know her. He moves in her circle of friends and while never becoming really close with her he is accepted on the fringes of her social group. Jennifer then suddenly goes missing and Engleby's world changes forever and the repercussions leading from this event shape his future in an unexpected direction.
We learn Engleby's story through his own words as the novel is in the form of a memoir written in the first person. The more we find out about Engleby and his life the more we get drawn into world.
Engleby reminded me of Camus' anti hero Meursault in his famous novel L'Étranger (The Outsider) published in 1942. Meursault is a person who is totally disconnected with life. The realisation of the absurdity of existence for him has led to question the very nature and the purpose of living. The inevitable futility of life and death lead him to a lack of emotional engagement with others and events even violent ones leave him unmoved. Engleby also displays this seemingly dispassionate existential view of life. His existence impact upon him, he is almost a detached observer and makes little attempt to find a purpose to it. He drifts along from school to university and then drifts into a career in journalism, never questioning or really caring about his situation. Despite this seemingly grim story there is a lot of humour in this book. Engleby is surprisingly a charming if rather strange narrator. Faulks uses Engleby as to look back with unerring wit at the past fifty years pointing out through his brutally honest critical and yet dispassionate eye many aspect of those times from education, progressive music, student politics, economics and in general the absurdity of life as he sees it.
Many of Engelby's recollections are extremely funny, his prodigious drug taking and drinking is ever present and to be his defence mechanism to cope with what life throws at him. He is extremely clever and posses a photographic memory but he sees little point in his abilities, he simply does what he needs to in order to pass his exams and later gain a living although money is of little interest to him.
Engleby also has a Forrest Gump like knack of encountering important figures of his time in the course of the story he bumps into the famous actor Sir Ralph Richardson, up and coming politician Jeffrey Archer and Ken Livingstone the radical leader of the GLC, these encounters are very amusing. I'd almost go a far to say that Engleby is actually a comic novel, a very dark and sometimes disturbing one but nonetheless comic. Faulks also adds new dimension to the story by way of Jennifer's disappearance, a mystery which Engleby and the police try to figure out.
Faulks has managed to make Mike Engleby a sympathetic character although I wouldn't say he ever becomes likeable. As we read Engleby's thought's on various matters as he expresses his jaundiced opinion on people and events we cannot avoid agreeing with some of his insights. His description of life in the second rate public school despite the disturbing amount or bullying that he suffers is genuinely funny as his description of student life and various 'student societies' that he joins (mostly to be close to Jennifer). Despite the witticisms and humour of the narrator we are always keenly aware of a darker undercurrent present in the writing. The cleverness of this book lies in Faulks' ability to create with such a multi-faceted character as Engleby. As I have said he is an outsider, he has been abused through his younger life and as such he serves as a sympathetic figure but in many ways he is also a sociopath. He shows a complete lack of empathy with others, he steals and cons people without remorse and seems incapable of love. Above all he has an unquestioning belief that his view of the world is the 'right' view. He gets very angry by small matters and yet shows a lack of emotion at truly tragic experiences.
Faulks tells the story through Engleby's memories but these are not presented chronologically. We start off when Engleby is at university but then travel back to his early years and school and then forward again to his later life as a journalist. This style of narrative can be a little confusing but it also allows the author to reveal different aspects of Engleby's character at a more controlled rate thus teasing the reader and of course we have to remember that Engleby might not be a reliable narrator. Faulks' writing style has always been one of his strong points as a writer and this is also the case in this novel.
The only fault (a minor one) I could find with the story is a slight predictability of the ending; then again others I have spoken to who have read it disagree on this point and tell me that they found a real twist in the tale at the end. I guess you'll have to make up your own minds on this one. Having said all this, the story still had me gripped up to the last line.
Overall 'Engleby' is a great read. The main character is a very clever literary creation and the story is intriguing and told in a way that engrosses the reader. The use of humour makes the dark subject matter easier to accept.
'Engleby' is available to buy at Amazon in paperback (352 pages) for £4.89 (+p&p) at the time of this review. ISBN-10: 0099458276/ ISBN-13: 978-0099458272.
© Mauri 2009
Obsession. Stalking. A chance encounter and something just clicks in your subconscious. Before you realise what's happened, you have an almost irresistible compulsion to become part of that person's life. To invade their circle of friends. Your imagination takes over. In your head, the object of your passion belongs to you. You know everything about her... But what happens when it all goes too far?
Sebastian Faulks' novel - published in paperback in March 2008 - is a chilling account of how a seemingly ordinary boy from a working-class family wins a place at public school, then one of the country's top Universities, and finally becomes a well-respected journalist on a national newspaper. But behind the apparent success story of triumph over adversity, there is a much darker undertow.
Disconnected emotionally from his parents and sister, Mike Engleby is a clever but withdrawn boy. It's hard to imagine a crueller place than the minor public school where he wins a scholarship. Mercilessly bullied by older boys, he finally gets to taste a little revenge. At university (quite obviously Cambridge, but never named as such), he's just as much of an outsider; hovering around the edge of groups where everyone is much more socially confident than him. He joins a university society almost at random, and meets Jennifer. Before long he is obsessed with her. His mind entwines him deeper and deeper into her life... Then she disappears.
Years after leaving university, Mike is writing for a national newspaper under a different name (a twist of fate rather than an overt attempt to distance himself from his undergraduate self). A young woman's skeleton is discovered by a remote track in a village close to the university town, and Mike is sent by his editor to cover the unfolding story of an old missing persons case reopened...
If you'll excuse the pun, Engleby is an intense, compulsive read: despite the fact that it's not too hard to work out what may have happened. The book mirrors the main character. It is complex, absorbing, sometimes infuriating. We see events through Engleby's distorted glass - often clouded by drugs and drink. It's a fascinating exploration of mental health from the inside.
Sebastian Faulks also has a very sure grasp of place. His evocation of suburban Reading, the public school, Cambridge, and then the less salubrious parts of London and the testosterone-driven microclimate of Fleet Street in the 1970s and 80s is quite superb.
I'm ashamed to admit that this is the first Sebastian Faulks novel I've read. But I'll definitely be reading more.