Newest Review: ... wasted opportunity. The atmosphere is one of wistful longing for the past, when life seemed simpler and full of hope; of the disappointme... more
Living the Lie
Engleby - Sebastian Faulks
Member Name: SWSt
Engleby - Sebastian Faulks
Advantages: Gripping, compelling insight into human nature
Disadvantages: Slightly too long; may be too directionless and dull for some
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
Summary: A gripping account of one man's life