‘My name is Mike Engleby and I’m in my second year at an ancient university’.
In this book Faulks creates one of the best unreliable narrators in fiction. His voice is mesmerising, intelligent and strangely compelling. I found myself strangely drawn in by him. In fact he’s very funny, in a darkly humorous way. We’re restricted to his first person narrative and his tale of a working class upbringing, affected by poverty and physically abusive treatment from his stepfather. Despite his disadvantages, he wins a place at a Cambridge college. Although he’s intellectually capable of fitting in, socially he’s a misfit, struggling on the edges of college society. Then he sees a girl in the tearoom of the University Library and an obsession starts. He observes Jennifer to a degree that’s detailed and creepy.
‘She was smoking a cigarette and trying not to laugh, but her eyes looked concerned and vulnerable as Robin’s low voice went urgently on. She is alive, Godammit she is alive. She looks so poised, with that womanly concern, beginning to override the girlish humour. I will always remember that balanced woman/girl expression on her face.’
This is the detail of someone who is watching constantly. He seems to have very little empathy for others, apart from Jennifer. So when she disappears, we are left in conflict. Where should our sympathies lie? Has Engleby lost someone he truly cared for or is something more sinister going on? Now I can’t claim that Faulks created the unreliable narrator, but this is the first time I truly had the rug swept from under me by a book. It’s not so much a twist, as a seismic shift that makes me question absolutely everything I’d read up to this point. The next books that surprised me this much was Atonement and We Need To Talk About Kevin so the book is in great company.
The build up is very slow, but the tension soon becomes unbearable. We’re waiting for something to snap! I felt myself weirdly torn between compassion and contempt for this boy who has been subjected to cruelty and possibly developed this faux intellectual and pretentious personality to survive. Or, has simply been lying to us all along? Faulks is questioning the way writers construct identity on the page and the reader’s tendency to believe the person presented to them, often without question. Is identity as fluid as he presents, or are some of our characteristics set in a permanent ‘self’ as most of us would like to believe. It’s an uncomfortable read, not just because we might feel confused with our own fixed and fluid selves, but because we feel complicit with a narrator we’ve enjoyed. Even more uncomfortable, could it be because there might be a little bit of Engleby in all of us.
Meet the Author
Sebastian Faulks was born in April 1953. Before becoming a full-time writer in 1991, he worked as a journalist. Sebastian Faulks’s books include A Possible Life, Human Traces, On Green Dolphin Street, Engleby, Birdsong, A Week in December and Where My Heart Used to Beat.