Tuesday 5 April 2011

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks came from the library on CD and I have been listening to it while knitting my secret jumper (for dad, mentioned just to prove he never visits my blog). I have had Birdsong in my TBR pile for ages but this was picked up somewhat at random (I seem to be making a habit of this at the moment). I picked out American Psycho for M as she is interested in 'disturbing' reads, and I was thinking of joining her instead after a couple of cd's of Engleby as it was decidedly dull, however I stuck with it and am glad I did.

Mike Engleby is a bit of a misfit, he just doesn't seem to know it, he thinks that it is the world that is all wrong, not to mention all the people in it are a bit stupid. This is a book told entirely in one voice, his voice, sometimes written in the present, very immediate, sometimes reflecting on the past, and you feel he is being honest, he never tries to paint himself other than he is, but then you are still not sure how much you trust him. Or like him. But he doesn't care if you like him, which is what makes him so engaging, because even if they deny it most people are concerned in some way with what other people think of them. The present tense in the story begins when he starts university though in the first part of the story he relates his childhood, including an abusive father and sadistic bullying at a minor public school. I was left physically sickened after the lengthy descriptions of this period in his life culminated in him becoming the bully in his turn as he climbs further up the social strata. By this point you recognise that he is utterly amoral and self-centred, but you are not sure if it is directly his experiences that have created this, or if there was something in his nature already that set him apart.

Between bouts of describing his childhood we watch the progress of his university career and his slightly creepy obsession with fellow student Jennifer, who's joie de vivre is such a contrast with his own negative attitude to life and distain for all that it offers. After first taking a letter written to her parents and copying it, he works his way into her social circle then steals her diary from her house and begins following her surreptitiously. When she disappears Engleby comes under suspicion but the case is never solved and his life appears to go on undisturbed. He however remains preoccupied by his memories of her, memorises her diary and uses his recall of it as a kind of therapy, trying to keep her alive in his mind. It was immediately obvious to me that he had killed her, and the more I found him disturbing the more I came to like Jennifer from his recall of her diary entries. Mike falls into journalism and big chunks of the book are a political history of the 1970's and 80's, his solitary life of drink and pill popping continue through the next 15 years or so rather monotonously, with periodic near breakdowns when he gets unpleasant memory flashbacks. I did like reading the passage of time though, it was a bit of a nostalgia trip, recalling the significant people he interviews, the social and political events and his minor participation in them. Then Jennifer's body is found, and the reader knows, and Mike knows (but does't admit to himself) that it is only a matter of time before the police come knocking.

It is at this point that the book takes another turn as it begins to analyse Engleby's actions and life choices. For the court case, and afterwards, we have a psychological analysis of what happened, and why. It was interesting because alongside the doctors reports we have Engleby's reading of them and his intense amusement at the process he is forced to go through to get himself committed to hospital rather than sent to prison. The whole book becomes an in depth look at what a psychopath really is, what makes him, how he thinks, about himself and those around him, and the world in general. In the story, which is almost entirely Engleby's inevitably unreliable retelling of the events, it is the statement to the police by his university friend Stellings that is really the only 'alternative' view. We finally get a visual picture of him, physically solid but unattractive, socially awkward, just plain odd. I liked the two contrasting descriptions of a dinner party that Engleby attends at Stellings' home, Engleby's perception of his own actions and behaviour totally at odds with how he was viewed by the other people there. His one saving grace, and hint at hidden humanity, is his enduring affection and loyalty to his younger sister Julie; she visits him in prison and he tells her to marry, have babies and be happy, it was the only time I felt any pity for him, because it was the only time he felt any pity for himself. It was as if in really considering her life and what it might be like he could see his own and what was missing from it. It lasted a tiny moment and then was gone, and that made it more believable, because he is not a man to linger over self-pity.

I have to put the spoiler warning because of the ending. It was ... perfect, and yet all wrong. He is having what he calls a 'diary session' where he recalls passages from Jen's diary, but then he begins to recall a passage that was never written, as if it is his version of what he wanted her 'final' entry to be, from the night he killed her. And in it he imagines her accepting his friendship, and then his desire and being content to be with him. It is perfect because this is exactly what he does, rationalises his actions by saying they are in the past and who really knows what happened, and maybe also part of his removal from reality, the feeling that he can reshape the past if he wants. And yet it is all wrong because it was too simplistic, to imply that all he really wanted was to be loved and accepted and then everything would have been fine. So my final response remains a quandary.

Sometimes I am sorry I read books like this, they can be very hard to follow because they preoccupy your mind. I remember reading Roddy Doyle's 'Woman who walked into doors' and everything I tried reading for weeks afterwards seemed shallow and crass in comparison. This book is so clever, so beautifully written, so engaging. You do have to give it a chance because to begin with I thought it was going to be some dull middle aged bloke life story kind of book. And you don't spend your time thinking of him as a criminal, but are just drawn in listening to his voice and having to question all the time what might be 'real' as you become more aware that his perception of events and situations is not like other people's. I am sorry again not to be able to quote as I do not have the text in front of me. I think this book really did gain something from being an audiobook, it meant, mainly, that Engleby had a man's voice, rather than my voice in my head, and the performance of the book was just excellent. Again, I feel as if I have not done it justice, that I am not clever enough to articulate the subtleties of the writing and the ideas. I am concerned about reading Birdsong now as this is described as a complete departure from his earlier novels, and am worried I will just be disappointed. Highly recommended.


  1. Great review. I enjoyed reading it... gives a real sense of the kind of book it is.

  2. excellent review, I'll try to get round to reading the book sometime. I've enjoyed others of his novels

  3. Birdsong was the first faulks novel I read- I'll be very surprised if you're disappointed. It's just my personal opinion but I think it is his absolute best and remains unequalled. It is so powerful that at times I had to put it down (his descriptions made me feel claustrophobic!). The story is moving, brilliant and so emotional that when i finished the book I was so emotionally drained I couldn't contemplate reading another book for weeks! I have never read another book like it before or since. Enjoy it!

    1. Hi, I did finally get around to reading Birdsong, in 2016, and loved it.

  4. I've just finished listening to the audiobook (I agree this really worked well) and this review matches my own views very closely (might make us both wrong? Reviews generally seem to have been mixed). I became slightly weirdly obsessed by the book as you have the twin effects of seeing and even admiring/being amused by his internal logic while also from time to time snapping out and being repelled by his inhumanity e.g. his inability to (overtly anyway) feel any pity for the parents of Jen. I thought the ending was spot on - I interpreted it as the nearest to a howl of pain/remorse as he was capable of delivering. Great review - thank you.


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