Despite having the dubious distinction of winning the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 1998 for his novel Charlotte Gray, Sebastian Faulks remains one of Britain’s most popular writers, having built a reputation as a purveyor of serious, meticulously researched historical fiction. His genius stems partly from his ability to successfully straddle gender lines, appealing to men and women alike with visceral evocations of both war and romance, particularly in his bestselling 2003 novel Birdsong.
Engleby, Faulks’ eighth novel, is a mixed bag. It’s the kind of book that critics normally label a “departure” — or as the dust jacket states: “a bolt from the blue”— except that Faulks had already broken the mold with 2005’s Human Traces. That novel, five years in the making, explored the emergence of modern psychiatry in the late Victorian Age. It’s hard not to feel with Engleby, whose deeply unreliable first person narrator suffers from an undefined type of personality disorder, that Faulks simply couldn’t resist digging through the fridge for leftovers.
The bulk of the story is set in the 1970s, where Mike Engelby has overcome his working class roots to attend an “ancient university” (a thinly concealed Cambridge) on scholarship. We quickly learn that he has survived intense, systematic abuse at the hands of both his father and his classmates at the boarding school he once attended.
Despite the horrors he describes, however, Engleby is devoid of self-pity and maintains an oddly bloodless attitude to his tormentors. Toward his professors at school he is both contemptuous and superior. An English major who switches to science, he is particularly adept at taking the piss out the scholarly pretensions of the day:
“Something else looked briefly promising. This was called “Theory” and it was just coming in. The point about Theory was that it didn’t matter if you read Jane Eyre or a fridge installation manual: what you were doing was studying how you studied them, and the important thing now was not the (anyway unquantifiable) ‘value’ of the original work but the effectiveness of the theory. Vanity Fair or Biggles was the guinea pig; the vaccine being tested was the -ism. Some of the theories came from the study of linguistics, which was partly based on neuroscience, and for a moment the poor English dons, so fed up with being looked down on by their scientific colleagues, could boast that they too had a ‘real’ subject with truths that could be tested in a lab.”
Engleby has a dependence on drugs and alcohol, an expensive habit he maintains through petty thievery learned from his school days. A loner of unclear sexual orientation, he becomes obsessed with one of his classmates, the popular and unattainable Jen Tarkington. When Jen suddenly disappears, the book shows all signs of turning into a standard whodunit. Faulks, however, has other plans, tracing Engleby’s career as a journalist through Thatcher-era Britain up until the present day, when the mystery of Jen’s disappearance is finally explained.
What Agatha Christie did so famously with the unreliable narrator The Murder of Roger Ackroyd — who is painstaking about the facts but omits the whole truth — is awkwardly fumbled here by Faulks. “My memory’s odd like that. I’m big on detail but there are holes in the fabric,” he declares on the second page. It’s a strategy that conveniently allows Faulks to write himself a blank cheque as far as plot is concerned, but naturally creates reader mistrust from the outset. As a result, there are few surprises here, despite some frequent patches of brilliant writing.
The unexpected revelation of the novel is that Faulks does funny, and does it quite well. Of course, one might ask, how knee-slapping can a book be whose misanthropic, delusional narrator is a possible murderer? But he manages to harness Engleby’s skewed, sardonic take on things to lively effect, particularly in the novel’s first half.
What will intrigue many die-hard fans are the novel’s obvious autobiographical qualities and contemporary setting. Faulks, who is roughly the same age as Engleby, is also a Cambridge alumnus and long-time journalist. As such, he takes frequent opportunities to air political and cultural laundry. Faulks has also admitted to suffering bouts of depression and hearing voices in his head. Regrettably, the voices neglected to tell him to get off his soapbox and tighten up the suspense. On the bright side, his asexual protagonist won’t be winning any bad (or good) sex awards this time around.
— Emily Donaldson