Book of the Month – January: ‘Engleby’ by Sebastian Faulks

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Perhaps it was the sudden post-mock surge of extra free time, perhaps it was the child-like excitement provoked by the pile of enticingly untouched books I received for Christmas, or perhaps it was simply my desperate desire to escape the dreary bleakness of January epitomised by the grey sky outside (a perfect real life example of pathetic fallacy if ever there was one); whatever the reason, it seems that during the first month of 2015 I was somehow motivated to transform into even more of a reading machine than normal. From the classic Jane Austen novel Sense and Sensibility to plays by Shakespeare and Arthur Miller, I spent the month immersed in the company of a whole bevvy of characters and a variety of literary styles, and while each text afforded me a great deal of enjoyment the book which particularly stood out to me would have to be Engleby by the fantastic Sebastian Faulks.

Despite him being one of Britain’s best-loved novelists, I have to admit that when I began reading Engleby Faulks’s writing was still very new to me, the only work of his that I had previously read being the novel for which he is perhaps best-known, Birdsong; indeed, my summer holiday of 2014 saw me wiping away tears as Faulks’s harrowing depiction of the horrors of World War One transported me away from the peaceful poolside and into the trenches of France. While my prior experience of this novelist’s immensely readable and engaging work was therefore relatively limited, there is no doubt in my mind that the utter satisfaction and delighted contentment (for I don’t think that the word ‘pleasure’ is truly applicable here given the distressing subject matter of the novel in question) which my reading of Birdsong gave me left me with a hunger to devour yet more of the literary genius which Faulks has to offer. My expectations as I turned to the first unblemished page of my new copy of Engleby were therefore understandably very high, and if there was only one thing which I could say about this novel, it would be that not only were the expectations for this particular novel not disappointed, but moreover those for any other Faulks novel that I may read were actually raised even further by the story, words and ideas that were contained within the crisp sheets of paper.

Unlike the largely historical setting of Birdsong, Engleby takes place in a more contemporary setting and follows the eponymous Mike Engleby through his years at an ‘ancient university’ (unnamed yet clearly Faulks’s own alma mater, Cambridge) and beyond into his adult life as a journalist: at the same time as constant flashbacks to his difficult school career at the definitely Eton/Harrow-esque and elitist institution of Chatfield, an important strand in Engleby’s story is the disappearance of his fellow university student Jennifer Arkland, with whom he has become obsessed. It is this latter element of the novel which gives it something of a thriller, murder mystery-style twist (and for this reason I suppose it is only fair at this point to warn you readers that I will be revealing some very pertinent SPOILERS in the forthcoming paragraphs). Initially I worried that the prevalence of such a genre in this book would somewhat diminish the enjoyment it could provide for me, since although I do occasionally find this type of plot exciting enough in guilty-pleasure TV dramas, I would personally choose an entirely different style of story or narrative when it comes to the literature that I like to read. I needn’t have worried however, for it did not take me long to realise that Engleby is no regular ‘whodunnit’: sparse are the references to police cars, criminal evidence and dramatic chases; instead, Faulks elevates his novel from merely being one in a long list of generic ‘Crime Fiction’ into an intellectually and psychologically stimulating piece of work. How does he do this, you may ask: by giving his readers a frightening insight into the mind of Jennifer’s killer, none other than Engleby himself.

In my opinion, the most clever way that Faulks does this is by writing the novel with Engleby acting as both the leading role and also the first-person unreliable narrator of his own story. Now, I have to say that this technique of ‘unreliable narration’ has long been one that I find absolutely fascinating and is undoubtedly one of my favourites in literature, my interest in this technique really stemming from my research conducted for an essay I wrote for a Cambridge University competition on the concept of narrative in fiction. From Briony, the character and fictional ‘real’ author (confusing, I realise) of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, to the mentally unstable yet somehow endearing Humbert Humbert who narrates Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (see this post for more on this book: https://thereadinglight.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/lolita-by-vladimir-nabokov-read-231213-3114/#more-395), it is no coincidence that many of my favourite literary works are those where the story unfolds through the voice of an unreliable narrator. What I find so thought-provoking about the concept of unreliable narration is the way that it not only often makes for a more enjoyable and believable book in terms of the principal character, but also adds a definitely metafictional element to the novel in question. Metafiction itself is a highly interesting concept, and can be accredited to works of fiction which, through one means or another, deliberately draw attention to their own fictional status, such as by parodying the conventions of a particular literary genre à la Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey (see: https://thereadinglight.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/northanger-abbey-by-jane-austen-read-22414-27414/). Anyway, I digress, and should probably get back to the book that is the subject of this post…

In terms of the unreliable narration that is present in Engleby, there is no doubting that this technique is most prominently evident in the way that the titular narrator often provides an evidently biased and self-interested account of events, people or situations, it being obvious to us readers even in our ignorance of the truth that certain details have been obscured or simply omitted entirely. Of course, the most significant example of such misrepresentation is the fact that Engleby does not initially divulge his knowledge of what happened to Jennifer, nor the most important fact of all in her disappearance: that it was actually he who killed her, his lust and fixation turning into rage and disgust when she fearfully pleads with him to let her go after he drives her to a remote location, thus making herself ridiculous in his eyes and so shattering the perfect image he had of her. For indeed, whilst Engleby does describe the events and investigations surrounding Jennifer’s disappearance, and even offers us his own feelings of anguish following the incident, it is not until much later in the novel, when the now adult Engleby is caught thanks to DNA evidence, that we finally learn what he has been hiding from us for so long. I would say that there is a certain paradox about such a distinction between what the narrator tells us and what he doesn’t, for I feel that as a reader one usually expects to be able to trust the first-person speaker to tell us the truth due to the sense of intimacy that such a narrative voice often seems to create, that our trust is so let down and even betrayed by Engleby therefore being both unsettling and somehow exciting in equal measure.

Moreover, what I found particularly interesting about Faulks’s use of unreliable narration was his skill in presenting Engleby as being almost oblivious to his gross distortion of the facts, to such a degree that the character does not appear to show any sign of remorse or even knowledge that what he has done is wrong. Take, for instance, the character’s description of certain events during his time at Chatfield: when Engleby is young and new to the school he becomes subject to incessant bullying at the hand of an older student, Baynes, our pity for the horrific victimisation which the boy faces and which is depicted as so awful by him coming to the fore when Baynes forces him to take a bath in freezing water; later, when Engleby himself has progressed to the top year of the school, he takes clear delight in forcing another younger boy, Stevens, to likewise bathe in freezing water. That Engleby can so shamelessly submit another to the exact same suffering he endured during his own youth, without so much as alluding to the shocking hypocrisy and callous double-standards of such treatment, appeared to me highly surprising and even rather chilling, the narrator’s apparent unawareness of his own heartlessness therefore making him a character whom I could view as nothing but unlikable. It is for this reason that I found it impossible to really identify or align myself with the speaker, as is so often the case when I read other novels with first-person narrators; and yet I do not consider this to be a weakness of Faulks’s writing, for I actually believe that the writer intended for us to feel this dislike towards his protagonist so as to make for a more credible conclusion when he is revealed to be Jennifer’s killer.

As if this certain alienation one feels towards the character were not enough of a reason for us to suspect that he may be capable of murder, over the course of the novel Faulks skilfully adds to any possible suspicion by dropping subtle hints in both the plot and characterisation of Engleby which can be said to indicate the latter’s crime. For instance, there is something definitely sinister and criminal (even though Engleby himself does not seem aware of it) about the way that he attends Jennifer’s History lectures despite himself being a student of Natural Sciences, the way he stalks her movements, the way he steals her diary and memorises passages of it following her death. Additionally, even as I was reading it I could tell that there was something not quite right about Baynes’s terrible ‘accident’ in his final year at Chatfield which saw him break both legs and receive head injuries, my supposition proved correct when Engleby reveals that he actually attacked Baynes, that his injuries contributed to a premature death thus making Engleby the murderer of more than one.

In my opinion these little clues with which the book is littered are extremely clever on Faulks’s part, since it renders the novel itself akin to a detective story which we as readers must figure out simultaneously to those fictional detectives trying to figure out Jennifer’s disappearance; the case we are investigating is often a tricky one, Faulks even throwing a definite ‘red herring’ in our direction when Engleby is questioned and dismissed as a suspect whilst he is still at university, the author hence toying with us and attempting to throw us off course. Nevertheless, I feel that had it been the detectives themselves who had been able to read the novel which we do, there is little doubt that Engleby would have been discovered as the killer much sooner in the proceedings, as the mannerisms and lack of values which he displays to readers alone would to the eye trained in such matters have been all the evidence required to give away his guilt. The question which Faulks is perhaps answering, then, is this: when searching for the truth, is one to believe what a person says through words, or what one says through lack of words? In the case of Engleby at least, the response is certainly the latter.

By Rebecca.

Link to official website of Sebastian Faulks: http://www.sebastianfaulks.com/

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1 Comment

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One response to “Book of the Month – January: ‘Engleby’ by Sebastian Faulks

  1. RH

    What interested me about the book was not so much the murder mystery aspect (which was amateurish when compared to many other authors) but the exploration of consciousness and self-perception. Through the unreliable narration mentioned above the reader finds the main character likeable. As the novel continues it becomes clear that others do not perceive the main character in the same positive light as he perceives himself – partly as a result of his actions but even before then. But ultimately does this matter to him as he constructs a fiction in his own mind that enables him to carry on living with himself.

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