If my last book (The Runaway Jury) was exactly what I expected, Engleby was anything but.
I will tell you now that I Never read the blurb. I like the feeling when a book takes me by surprise.
Having read Sebastian Faulks’ French trilogy (The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray) which I found to be superb reads (well maybe The Girl at the Lion d’Or less so) I think I went into this book expecting another book based around the hardships of war.
I was wrong. Gone was the stories of living in a bunker, being terrified and under fire. Gone was France. Gone even was the raunchy love scenes. If this book were to be illustrated, the artist would soon have run out of neutral grey.
The book is centred on and narrated by Mike Engleby. When our story picks up Engleby is in his first year at University (which, although he goes out of his way not to tell us directly, is clearly Cambridge) during 1973. Engleby takes us through his life as a very intelligent boy, thrust into the English boarding school system in the 1960s when his father dies. He tells of the bullying and abuse that he receives whilst there, and the perceived normality of this by all of those around him. He goes on to give the outline of a young man that he becomes, finding it hard to fit in, Mike is a loner, a misfit.
It is quite tough reading, as I really did not like the protagonist. In Birdsong Faulks used his gift of wallowing in the mundane, revelling in squalor and displaying enormous amounts of self pity, without loosing his audience. However, in Birdsong, you felt that the protagonist had earned the right to that self pity, that awkwardness, through the extreme hardships and atrocities of war. In Engleby he is asking the reader to be show the same level of understanding and compassion, to a young man that does not fit in at university and may have suffered a certain amount of bullying at school.
Whilst at university Engleby gets fixated by a fellow student named Jennifer, but the feeling is quite clearly (to us) not mutual. It is when Jennifer disappears in suspicious circumstances that it all starts falling apart for Mike and consequently it is when the story starts to get interesting.
If anything I would say that Faulks overplays the wallowing aspect of Mike’s character. If we were again to use a movie analogy, I would say that this story could do with a good editor with a sharp pair of scissors.