Engleby is the latest novel by Sebastian Faulks, most prominent in my library for the superb Birdsong. Engleby is a compelling, believable and at times very worrying book that explores the relationship between the reader and the first person narrator, in this book a narrator of the most unreliable kind.
Mike Engleby is a bright student at Cambridge university in the early 1970s. He’s a loner with hangups but he’s not a neurotic Woody Allen; his voice is laced with arrogance and conceit. Engleby is always right in his own eyes – however odd his choices and personal goals are. This unusual although undeniably strong personality is the crux of the novel; we are charmed by the first person narrator, we trust him and join him for the ride. What do we do if he doesn’t always tell the truth? What if he steps over the line? What if he might be a murderer?
What could be a lighthearted look at seventies university life is marred both by the disappearance of a young female student and Engleby’s dwelling on his grim experiences of public school bullying and abuse. As his reminiscences unfold we learn that one of his worst abusers is later subject to a violent assault; Engleby is also questioned about the girl’s disappearance. He freely admits that, whilst some memories haunt him daily, he is often unable to recall others quite as clearly. The novel follows his progress after university and into the eighties, where he has forged something of a career as a journalist. A man with only one real male friendship and apparently only one relationship with a female, he claims to have met and befriended figures from the world of entertainment and politics, including Jeffrey Archer and Ralph Richardson. But again, is he really telling the truth?
Faulks’ strength is a writer is that we find it hard to condemn Engleby. Whether it’s the petty crime he indulges in or the prospect that he might just be involved in a murder; the influence of the narrator, however unreliable or unstrustworthy, has never been stronger in any other novel I’ve read. What’s even cleverer is the brief points of view of others towards the end of the book. A psychiatrist’s report on Engleby’s narrative throws up several questions about his personality and behaviour; points I’d considered yet dismissed. Dismissed because I had to keep reading this compelling voice.
Engleby is a fascinating and intellectually absorbing novel, keeping its final trump card until the very last page. Sebastian Faulks is a very fine writer indeed. This might just be his finest.