Books Read in 2022. 8. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Black Literature

Narrative Style: Third person, largely chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Cora isn’t sure at first when Caesar asks her to escape with him. He tells her about the Underground Railroad which is not just a metaphor in Whitehead’s book but an actual network of stations and trains. Even though she is an outcast on the plantation, she still hesitates. The punishment if caught is likely to be horrific. But then things grow more unpleasant on the plantation and she decides to go with him and they escape. At each stop, Whitehead shows a different aspect of the horror of slavery.

Time on shelf: Not very long. Last year, I read Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and was blown away. I bought this not long after.

Whitehead starts his story on the Randall cotton plantation where Cora was born. Her mother, Mabel had escaped when Cora was younger, leaving her daughter behind. The only thing that Cora has in the world is a small plot of land and when someone tries to take it from her, she attacks him and is made to live with other outcast slaves, in Hob, away from everyone else. She has already suffered a huge amount of abuse when Caesar first asks her to escape but still she refuses at first, the risk seeming too great. Caesar persists and they make their escape.

They very nearly don’t make it. In the swamps outside of the plantation, some of Randall’s men catch up with them. In the fight that follows, Cora accidentally kills a teenage boy making it even more urgent that they manage to escape. It is a relief, albeit short-lived, when they make it to the first station of the railway and manage to get the train to South Carolina.

Of course, there troubles do not end there. Whitehead uses the railroad to show the many horrors that white people have visited on black people – not just slavery. At first, in South Carolina, all seems well. Cora has a new name and a job, she is learning to read and seems happy. The white people seem kind and caring. However, it soon becomes sinister as Cora is given a job as a ‘type’ in a living museum which gives a false, positive version of slavery. Free medical treatment given at the local hospital turns out to be governmental experimentation aiming to find a cure for syphillis and the women are encouraged towards voluntary sterilisation. The whites that seemed so kind actually still have a racist view of black people as childlike and less than themselves. Cora decides that she cannot stay. This is the start of a horrific journey for her.

Whitehead uses her journey to inform the reader of many terrible events – Cora becomes trapped in the attic of a station agent, unable to stand or make any noise, a doctor raids black graves for corpses to use in anatomy classes, in Georgia, every Friday, they have a festival which ends with the hanging of a black person – and it becomes more than just Cora’s story, more than just a story about slavery, it becomes a history of racial injustice in America.

This isn’t an easy read. And nor should it be. Like Kindred by Octavia Butler, this is unflinching in its detail. I have read some reviews that say that Whitehead’s tone is flat and it is true that it is not overly emotional but I think that it works very well given that this is a history. There is no need for it to be overly emotional when the stark facts speak so loudly. If Whitehead had shown the level of upset and horror that these events warrant, I think it would have been unreadable. Instead, the reader is given a calm voice to guide them and show them exactly what the problem is.

Another criticism is that Cora is not a fully developed character. I agree but I think it is deliberate on Whitehead’s part. She has no free will. Things happen to her. She has no power to change that or to do anything other than constantly react. Her journey is a representation of African American experience and she is a product of that experience. At the end of the novel, when she is finally free, she makes the decision of who to ride with. This is the first real decision of her life.

I enjoyed this book a lot more that Kindred where I struggled to suspend my disbelief. I couldn’t put this down. Definitely one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 7. The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan

Genre: Historical fiction, Chinese fiction

Narrative Style: First person from two different points of view.

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1991

Synopsis: Winnie and Helen have kept each other’s secrets for years, since they first came to America in fact. Helen believes she is dying so she wants to tell all of Winnie’s secrets. Winnie decides to tell her daughter, Pearl, everything herself. Pearl also has secrets that she is frightened to tell her mother.

Book Challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on shelf: About eight years. I inherited it from my husband’s aunt. I might have read it sooner but was put off by a more recent Tan novel, The Valley of Amazement, that I really did not enjoy.

The Kitchen God’s Wife starts with the first person story of Pearl, Winnie’s daughter. Pearl’s relationship with her mother is fractious. Winnie seems like a stereotypical Chinese mother, irritable, full of wise sayings and seeming not to have fitted into American life. Pearl is so removed from her, she hasn’t told her she has multiple sclerosis – a secret she has kept for seven years. Little does Pearl realise but her mother also has many secrets. When ‘Aunt’ Helen says she is dying and feels she needs to tell all secrets, both mother and daughter realise they need to talk to each other. Winnie invites her daughter to visit and proceeds to tell her the story of her life. This takes up the bulk of the novel.

Winnie – or Weiwei as she is known – is abandoned by her mother at age 6 for reasons unknown and her life of privilege ends. She is sent to live in the countryside with her Uncle’s family where life is tougher for her. Stories fly around about her mother but she never finds out the truth about the disappearance. This is the start of Weiwei’s sorrows and pains. Her Uncle’s family aren’t unkind but she feels she is less loved than her cousin, Peanut.

Tan doesn’t let up after that. Weiwei marries Wen Fu. He had previously courted Peanut but changes to Weiwei when he realises she is richer. This greed will be a theme of the novel with Wen Fu doing terrible things to try and hold on to Weiwei’s money. He rapes Weiwei and is violent towards her. He sleeps with other women, sometimes bringing them into the family home. He lies about his war record, claiming to be a hero when in fact, he used to fly away from the Japanese fighter planes. Weiwei’s life with him is miserable and difficult. She also loses three children.

Weiwei suffers terribly during the war and after when she ends up in prison when Wen Fu accuses her of stealing away their son and letting him die. (He died in an epidemic.) By now, she has met Jimmy (Pearl’s father) who presents a clear contrast to Wen Fu. He represents hope for the future as does the move to America.

Weiwei’s story takes up the majority of the novel with Pearl’s narrative framing it. We return to Pearl at the end so she can share her secret. I would have liked to hear a little more of Pearl’s voice but really this is Weiwei’s story which mirrors the story of China during the second world war. An interesting, emotional read.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 – 6. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Non fiction, Psychology, Cultural comment

Narrative Style: Informal academic

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2008

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Gladwell discusses the most successful, the brightest and best in various fields and how they got to the top.

Book Challenge: TBR Challenge

Time on shelf: About eighteen months. I didn’t think that this would be the next book I finished. I started to read this after The Kitchen God’s Wife and I was only reading it on my commute but it took my fancy so I finished it quite quickly.

This was a very enjoyable read. Gladwell isn’t particularly saying anything profound but his style is easy to follow and the illustrations he uses to support his ideas are interesting. I couldn’t put it down.

The premise of Gladwell’s book is that there are some people that stand out from everyone else – be it in intelligence, musical prowess, computing, sport – and he calls them outliers. He suggests that the usual reasons people give for their success are false – innate talent, for example, personality traits or habits such as getting up early in the morning. There is no such thing as a self made man and maybe we didn’t really believe that myth anyway but even so, the way that Gladwell goes about debunking it is compelling.

In some ways, there isn’t much variety to this book. Gladwell is making the same point all the way through but I lost count of the times I was surprised or intrigued by the examples he explored. The chapters are all structured in much the same way as well. He begins anecdotally, usually detailing someone’s life story or an event and then moves to research that relates to the life story and then finally back to the original story to show how we ought to be thinking about it. Again, I didn’t mind this as it helped me understand the points that Gladwell was making in a clear and simple way.

Gladwell begins by talking about Canadian hockey leagues and how the cut off for children to go into the highest leagues allows only the oldest children to get through every year (because they are just that bit bigger and older). Then due to the extra help they get, they become the most gifted that they were assumed to be in the first place. I see this sort of self fulfilling prophecy in education all the time. Those kids assumed to be gifted and talented are given extra lessons and opportunities so that the gap between them and their classmates widens. If we gave all pupils those opportunities we might see something different happen.

The first half of the book looks at individuals such as Bill Gates and Bill Joy and tries to alter how we normally view these narratives. Gladwell suggested that 10000 hours of practising is needed in order to master anything – a musical instrument, programming a computer – and then discusses the other advantages (e.g. his school had one of the only computers at the time to allow time sharing so he got to do real time programming in 1968) that people such as Gates had. He suggested that the Beatles got to be so big so quickly because of all the hours they spend in Hamburg playing set after set after set.

The second half looks at the way our culture affects our behaviour. Gladwell suggests that we inherit cultural information in much the same way that we inherit genetic information. He asks whether we should be taking cultural legacies more seriously than we do. The most interesting example Gladwell uses is that of a series of serious plane crashes involving Korean Air planes. So serious were these crashes that the Federal Aviation Authority were considering revoking Korean Air’s overflight and landing privileges in some areas of the world. Something had to be done. The problem was all to do with the way the pilots were talking to each other and to air traffic control. It transpired that the co-pilots were using mitigated speech because of the Power Distance Index which measures how a particular culture relates to authority. In these cases, the co-pilots were hampered by the power distance between themselves and the pilot – that is they were unable to tell the pilot they were making a mistake. Not only that, unlike in Western cultures, the onus is on the listener to work out what is being said, rather than the speaker to make themselves understood. This let to obvious difficulties in the cockpit. Once this was realised, Korean pilots were trained in a different way and the crashes stopped.

Overall, I enjoyed this very much. It’s not really all that radical but it did make me think about things I hadn’t considered and I will probably read more of Gladwell’s books.

Books Read in 2022 5. Ridley Road – Jo Bloom

Genre: Historical fiction, Romance

Narrative Structure: Third person, Chronological

Published: 2014

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: When her father dies, Vivien moves from Manchester to London, hoping to catch up with Jack Fox, a man who came to visit her father just before he died. Vivien quickly gets a job in a hair salon but there is no sign of Jack. Then she sees him at a fascist rally when she believed him to be Jewish. He explains to her that he is undercover in Colin Jordan’s organisation in order to find evidence that they are training men to fight.

Time on shelf: Quite a recent purchase. I bought it after the TV series which I enjoyed.

I was really looking forward to reading this. I had enjoyed the BBC series, last year. It was fast paced and about interesting events in British history that I hadn’t heard about before. However, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much. Sometimes it barely felt like the same story.

I could list all the differences between the book and the TV program – for example, Vivien has lost both her parents in the book but in the TV program, they are very much alive – but to a certain extent, there are always such differences between these sorts of media. A bigger problem was the pace. It was very slow to start. There are a lot of details about Vivien’s move to London and her grief for her father. I was constantly waiting for things to really get going. Maybe if I had not watched the TV series I would have had more patience but I was expecting to get straight into the action.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that I found Vivien a bit insipid. She was obsessed with Jack. The sections of the book from her point of view are centred on a hairdressers with gossiping women and many descriptions of fashionable outfits and haircuts. I wouldn’t have categorised the TV series as a romance but a lot of the book definitely is.

Jack’s sections were better. The difficulty for him, as a Jewish man, being in a fascist organisation was well captured and he was a more rounded character than Vivien. There was also more action and the pace was more lively. I would have liked more of this side of the story and less of the romance and I think I see why they changed it for TV.

The subject matter of the book is interesting. The rise of fascism and the 62 Group fighting back was not something I was aware of. However, the romance elements, for me, took attention away from this and didn’t really add anything to the story. For once, the TV show was better than the book.

TBR Challenge: Books Read in 2022 4. The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt

Genre: LGBT, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of view points. Largely chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1986

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Rose and Owen have been married for a long time. Their relationship first comes under pressure when they are told they have to buy their apartment or move out. They are unsure whether they can afford it and put off making a decision. Their son, Phillip, is in love for the first time so decides the time has come to come out to his parents. This causes problems for Owen who is struggling with his sexuality – he spends his Sunday afternoons in a gay porn theatre – and makes Rose realise some of the issues in her marriage.

Time on shelf: I’ve had a physical copy of this book for about two years but it has been on my reading list since I did my MA in the 90s.

Reading challenge: TBR Challenge 2022

I first came across this book when I took a module for my MA on Narrative and the Deviant Body. The Lost Language of Cranes wasn’t on the reading list but I came across it in my reading and added it to my very long TBR list. I can’t believe it took my this long to read it. Especially as it was a very good read.

At the beginning of the novel, Owen and Rose are a long married couple in a rented apartment in New York that they have lived in for years. They have to either buy up – which may cause them financial difficulties – or move out of the family home. Both ignore this as far as they can probably because if they start to examine things too closely, they will see the issues within their marriage. Owen spends every Sunday afternoon in a gay porn theatre while Rose carefully doesn’t ask where he was been. They willfully refuse to see each other clearly. Early in the novel, Rose meets Owen in the street on one of these Sundays and they are like two strangers. While she starts to question where he has been, she still doesn’t ask.

Their only son, Phillip, is in love for the first time. Elliot, the object of Phillip’s affections doesn’t want to be in a committed relationship. Phillip is insecure and, as a result, comes across as needy. He is unable to relax and appreciate his relationship without analysing it and worrying about the end of it. Like Owen, he is not entirely comfortable with his emotions although he is more comfortable with his sexuality. His parents don’t know he is gay, at the beginning but as he is now in a relationship, he wishes them to know. When he does tell them, it rocks their marriage even further.

Leavitt’s prose is a joy to read. It is elegant and exact. Owen, Rose and Phillip are all well drawn and it is possible to feel empathy for all three of them even when they are opposed to each other. Even though Rose doesn’t react well to Phillip’s coming out, Leavitt allows the reader to understand her position. I wanted the best for all three characters even though this is clearly impossible. For Owen to be happy, Rose and their marriage will be destroyed. Owen’s situation is heart breaking – in a particularly poignant moment, he phones a sex line and then starts to weep down the phone – as he is torn between his desires and how much he would hurt his family. When Owen eventually does leave, it doesn’t feel particularly triumphant – he seems as broken as Rose – but at least there is hope for the future.

At the end of the novel, Phillip is starting a relationship that is more equal and more real than his relationship with Elliot. Brad has been his close friend for a long time and they have the trust in each other than was missing in Phillip’s relationship with Elliot. They kiss passionately for the first time before Phillip has to go to his father who has just left home. This could be seen as representing a more open and accepting future for gay men.

This is the best book I have read so far this year and I’m going to say, it will be hard to better. It was moving and compelling. I couldn’t put it down. I will certainly be investing in more of Leavitt’s books.



Books Read in 2022 – 2. Sunburn: The Unofficial History of The Sun in 99 Headlines by James Felton.

Genre: Cultural Comment, Humour, Politics

Narrative Style: Informal, chatty

Published: 2020

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: James Felton dissects 99 headlines from the Sun newspaper and discusses how they have influenced their readers to think in a certain way. Or is it that they move to fit in with what their readers think? It’s hard to say.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I knew when I bought this that I would read it pretty quickly.

My mother was a Sun reader. No matter how terrible the paper got, she remained loyal to it. She was a reasonable woman most of the time but occasionally, you would hear some comment about care in the community, for example, or Hillsborough and you’d think that came straight from the Sun. I found it really depressing that she kept on reading it no matter how awful it got. As a result I was curious to see what Felton would make of it.

As the title suggests, Felton takes 99 headlines and discusses how horrible / prejudiced / prurient they are and what it suggests about The Sun’s readers. It includes famous headlines such as Gotcha during the Falklands War, Freddie Star ate my Hamster and Fly Away Gays and We Will Pay during the AIDS crisis. I was familiar with some of these headlines and stories but I wasn’t prepared for how horrible it would be to read them one after another. The blatant homophobia of the way The Sun reported the AIDS crisis was horrific, featuring stories about a clergyman who said he would shoot his own son if he ever caught it, was far worse than I remember (I was in my teens at the time). It was hard reading through them all together and I had to keep putting the book down and think of something nicer.

If you are familiar with Felton’s Twitter game, then you will recognise the style here. Sardonic, dark humour runs through this non-subtle analysis of the Sun’s headlines. (I’m not criticising. There is no way to discuss these headlines in a subtle way.) Mostly, he describes the story, offers a small amount of analysis and moves on to the next one. It wasn’t the most satisfactory style. By the end, I was longing for a bit more depth.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. It’s hard to say I enjoyed it because it was such a horrible experience at times. Worthwhile if your interested in politics and how the media go to where they are today.

Books Read in 2022 1. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin

Genre: Thriller

Narrative Style: Alternates between first person and third person.

Published: 1994 (Under the name Jack Harvey)

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Michael Weston is a sniper and paid assassin. He asks no questions and just gets on with the job. However, this time someone has tipped off the police and he is nearly caught. Michael needs to investigate who gave him the job while also evading the police and a private detective named Hoffer who works on the behalf of the family of a previous victim.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader

Time on shelf: About ten years. I remember buying it in a charity shop because I was interested in reading a Rankin novel that wasn’t a Rebus story. However, as I was working my way through the Rebus books at the time, they always took precedence.

This started well. The story starts right in the middle of the action. Weston is in position, waiting for his victim who is about to appear from the hotel across the road. He makes the hit and the police arrive far too quickly. Weston then has to escape – something he does by hitting himself in the head with a rock and then phoning an ambulance which comes extremely quickly once they realise he is a haemophiliac. That was an unusual angle and made the story exciting from the first.

Weston’s sections are written in first person and I liked that we were being made to side with a character who was ostensibly the bad guy. I was keen to know who had set him up and how all the pieces fitted together. For all he assassinates people for money, he isn’t a nasty character. He tends to keep his distance from people or at least he tries to.

The main foil to Weston’s character is the private detective, Hoffer. He is supposed to be the good guy but it is impossible to like him. He is sexist and obnoxious. In fact, I think Rankin may have overdone it with his lack of redeeming features as he became something of a caricature. I found myself more and more irritated with him. He is never far behind Weston and his unpleasantness made it easier to root for the assassin.

There is love interest for Weston in the form of Belle, the daughter of his arms dealer. She was clearly supposed to show that women can be interested in guns and can be tough and sexy. She is in love with Weston and they fall into a relationship. I found this a bit unnecessary. Weston keeps trying to leave her behind. She refuses to be left. It gets a bit tedious after a while.

The plot is intriguing. Weston discovers that the hit is linked to a cult called Disciples of Love who have links to some US government agencies. As he investigates further, the group become more and more sinister. As with the Rebus books, Rankin’s plotting is tight. This was the most successful aspect of the book. Very satisfying.

Unfortunately not everything was so successful. Hoffer has the opportunity to kill Weston but suddenly has a fit of conscience which didn’t ring true. I wasn’t really convinced by some of the smaller characters – Spike, Weston’s friend in the States, for example. The dynamic between Michael and Belle was annoying. Ultimately this was an okay read but nowhere near as good as the Rebus books.

Books Read in 2021 37. Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence

Genre: Romance, Classics, Erotic

Narrative Style: Third person from different viewpoints.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1928

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Clifford Chatterley is confined to a wheelchair after the first world war. His wife Connie is bored and restless. They would have been ill-matched even without the added strain of Clifford’s paralysis. When the new games keeper arrives on the estate, she starts an affair with him.

Time on Shelf: Quite a while. I downloaded this because I thought it would be interesting to read and compare to modern erotica. I was put off, however, by my other attempts at reading Lawrence which had been unsuccessful.

Like most people, I was curious to read this because of the furore that it caused. I watched the 2015 BBC adaptation which features Richard Madden as Mellors (rather generous casting I would say) and was suitably sexy. I realise that this was never going to be Fifty Shades of Grey (Not that I liked that book anyway) with sex every two minutes but Lawrence’s prose was terrible and really the story wasn’t complicated enough for the number of pages that Lawrence gives it.

It’s hard to say whether this book would be read by anyone if not for the sex. Lawrence’s style is well and truly out of fashion, I suppose and thank goodness for that. There were little affectations that I found immensely annoying. For example, ‘And besides, he felt cruelly his own unfinished nature. He felt his own unfinished condition of aloneness cruelly.’ This repeating of little phrases happened quite often and made me want to throw the book away every time it happened. Then there was the exclamations. I don’t think I have ever read a book which overused the exclamation mark quite so much. Here is a particularly bad example. ‘The awful mill-posts of most females! really shocking, really enough to justify murder! Or the poor thin pegs! or the trim neat things in silk stockings, without the slightest look of life! Awful, the millions of meaningless legs prancing meaninglessly around!’ It was exhausting. I’m just glad I didn’t have to read it out loud.

Connie was always feeling things in her bowels or in her womb. (‘On this spring morning she felt a quiver in her womb, too, as if the sunshine had touched it and made it happy.’) That was annoying but maybe we can forgive Lawrence seeing that he was writing 100 years ago and he does allow that Connie has very real sexual feelings which she follows. The sex is a bit cringey (inevitably, I suppose, given that there is often something a little odd and awkward about sex written down and we think about things so very differently now.) particularly in the beginning with Connie’s first lover, Michaelis where orgasms are referred to as crises and Michaelis has little care for Connie’s pleasure.

It doesn’t get much better with Mellors. For a start, he shifts between dialect and Standard English at will. Lawrence’s attempts at writing down his dialogue are incomprehensible at times. Lawrence is as much in thrall to Mellors and his penis as he is to Connie and her body parts so the descriptions are, at least, equally absurd. The couple talk to each other like no real life people ever (in fact, this is true of all conversations and all characters. Did Lawrence ever actually talk to people?) and fall in love physically on the floor of Mellor’s hut.

The themes of this novel are quite interesting – the relationship between the classes as well as that between the sexes are dissected thoroughly – but the awfulness of the prose spoiled it all for me. I couldn’t take it seriously. Shame, really.

Books read in 2021 – 36. Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim.

Genre: LGBT, Abuse

Narrative Style: First person from a number of different points of view. Chronological

Published: 1995

Rating: 5/5

Format: paperback.

Synopsis: At eight years old, Brian Lackey is found bleeding under the crawl space in his house with no memory of the last few hours. His last memory is playing baseball. The next evening, he sees what he believes to be a UFO. Over the years, he loses more time and he becomes convinced that he has been abducted by aliens, more than once. Neil McCormick is on Brian’s baseball team and he knows exactly what happened to Brian and it has nothing to do with aliens. Brian realises that Neil is the only one who can help him fill those missing hours so he tracks him down.

Time on shelf: I bought this a couple of years ago but I’ve been aware of it for about six or seven years.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. From the very first, it is apparent that something terrible has happened to Brian Lackey and, although he cannot remember it, it has something to do with his little league baseball team and the coach of the team. We know this from Neil’s parallel narrative in which he describes his encounters with his coach. Neil couldn’t be more different from Brian. He is very aware of himself and his sexuality and he relishes the attention that he gets from his coach as he gets little love and attention at home. This is not easy to read even though Neil claims that it has not harmed him and, in fact, he loved his coach and believed that the man loved him.

The narrative moves to later in the lives of both boys – along with narratives from their friends and family. Neil is now a hustler, still very much occupied by sex. Brian is obsessed with UFOs and aliens and eventually meets someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens. He measures her experience against his own and starts to believe this is what happened to him. It is heartbreaking to see the paths both their lives have taken. Although Neil still claims to be happy and to be doing what he wants, it is clear that he has been damaged by his early experiences. Brian seems even more tragic, unable to even acknowledge what has happened to him. The alien story occupies him because he knows something terrible happened and this story means that he doesn’t have to examine the truth.

Heim deftly handles all the different perspectives and the story moves at quite a pace. It is compelling – I found myself both wanting and not wanting Brian to discover the truth. Obviously, he couldn’t carry on believing he was abducted by aliens but inevitably, when he did work it out, he would be destroyed by the knowledge and that was going to be hard to cope with.

Brian finds a photo of the little league team and realises there is some special memory attached to the image of Neil. At first, he believes that they must have been abducted together. But as his search brings him closer to Neil, he realises that the image of his coach also has a horrible effect on him. He is close to his own realisation when Neil takes him back to the house where it happened and we get a full description of what happened to both boys.

The ending was particularly difficult to read especially as Heim offers no resolution. The novel ends with Neil and Brian sat together, holding hands, as the family that now own the house come home. There is no knowing what effect the revelations will have on both their lives. It is a moment that could go in a number of different ways. It could be good – both of them perhaps can move forward – or it could be bad – maybe they will be drowned by it. It is for the reader to decide and I chose to look on the brightside.

This was a difficult read. As you might expect given the subject matter. I hesitate to say I enjoyed it because I’m not sure enjoyment is the right word. It was compelling and heartbreaking. I couldn’t put it down.

Books Read in 2021 – 35. Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Genre: thriller, masculinity, madness

Narrative style: First person, largely chronological

Rating: 2/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2007

Synopsis: Mike Engleby has never fitted in. Not at school and not at university. When he becomes obsessed with a pretty student named Jennifer, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong with him. Then Jennifer disappears and all eyes are on Mike but there is no proof that he killed her and life carries on.

Time on shelf: Not very long. I read Birdsong a long time ago and really enjoyed it. More recently, I read Paris Echo which was okay. I wanted to give Faulks another try before I decided to stop reading him all together.

I really expected to enjoy this. I thought that Mike Engleby would be as creepy and upsetting as Frederick in The Collector. Perhaps I read this too close to the Fowles but it just didn’t compare. A lot of this book felt like filler. Not much happens and Engleby was annoying. He rarely made my skin crawl.

The book starts with Engleby at university and obsessed with Jennifer, a fellow student. So far so good, right? Wrong. Although Engleby follows her around – attending her lectures as well as his own, joining a society she runs – not much happens. There is little sense of tension. Probably because it is quite a lot of pages in before she disappears. Before that, there are minor events such as he steals a letter she is sending home and reads it and he steals her diary. We also discover something of Engleby’s background – he was bullied at the private school he attended on a scholarship – but I didn’t feel drawn in.

When Jennifer does eventually disappear, Engleby seems an obvious suspect but there is no proof to tie him to the disappearance. He hides the diary which he still possesses and the event passes and he wanders into his future as a journalist. There are hints that he may have something to do with it. He talks about memory lapses and another woman disappears but his life carries on regardless. I was definitely bored now.

Part of the problem was my inability to suspend my disbelief. Engleby decides to send the diary back to Jennifer’s mother but it is okay, he was memorised it all so we are still treated to extracts of her diary. At the same time, he suffers from huge memory lapses where he had no idea what had happened for hours. This didn’t convince. The amazing memory trick is only mentioned when the diary is sent away so it felt contrived. Now I realise that this could be an authorial trick. Engleby is unreliable and we have no way of knowing whether he was remembering Jennifer’s diary exactly or not but it was too unsubtle for me. I prefer not to see the author at work.

Eventually – far too many pages later – the police have finally discovered how to extract DNA and Engleby is tried and found guilty although he is sent to a mental institution rather than a prison. His discussions with the court appointed officials and then his psychiatrist are cringe worthy and difficult to read. One thing that keeps coming up is the fact that Engleby’s violence towards women may be due to his repressed homosexuality. (Obviously Engleby does not agree with this reading of his issues.) I found this offensive and, again, not particularly well written. When Jennifer first disappears, the police make assumptions that Mike is gay, something he vehemently denies. Then his case worker also suggests that this is the root of all Engleby’s issues. (Incidentally, Mike’s opinions of her are also pretty offensive.) Is this really the best Faulks can come up with – he must really be gay? Tedious, not to mention homophobic.

Another thing that was annoying was the cameos of those that Engleby interviewed when he was a journalist. Now, it may be that this was all part of Engleby’s delusion but nonetheless it was annoying to have Ken Livingstone, Peter Mandelson and Ralph Richardson keep popping up in the narrative. It reminded me of David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue which I read earlier this year. Perhaps it is an impulse a writer of a certain calibre finds impossible to resist – I must have a go at some real people – well, resist they should. Another element of tedium.

The end of this book is ambiguous. Engleby may be innocent. It may all have been a fantasy. This didn’t make it any more satisfying and I struggled to understand what Faulks might have been trying to say. Like The Collector, there is a class element to this story but unlike Fowles novel, it wasn’t apparent what the moral was supposed to be. I think I’ll be leaving Faulks alone for a while now.