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.

Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Paris Echo – Sebastian Faulks

Genre: Literary fiction, History, The effect of war

Narrative Style: two first person narrators

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2018

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Two very different visitors to Paris meet and end up sharing a house. Hannah is in Paris to research life for women during Paris’ occupation during the second world war. Tariq runs away from home to try and find some information about his mother who was French. They both come to a greater understanding of themselves through their interaction with the city. 

Writing Challenges: Alphabet Soup: Author Challenge

This didn’t grab me. A while ago, I decided that I ought to read more by authors where I’d read one book which I’d really enjoyed. About fifteen years ago, I read Birdsong. I don’t know why that didn’t lead me to read more of Faulks’  novels then. Anyway, hence reading Paris Echo.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in this novel – about history and its ongoing effect on the present, about personal and political views of events and about our sense of self. In fact, the transcriptions of the interviews with French women who lived through occupation were probably the most interesting part of this novel and I found myself wishing it was more straightforward historical fiction. I would definitely have been interested in reading more about these women.

The main problem is that the two main characters never came alive for me. Neither of them really convinced. It also seemed unlikely that Hannah would have just opened her door to Tariq. A lot of interesting things happen to Tariq – he sometimes feels like he is watching himself from the outside, he meets a woman who may or may not be a ghost – a woman he has seen in a vintage photo shown to him by Hannah. But he isn’t really all that interesting and at the end of the novel, he is back home with the same girlfriend, taking up his life with no real changes. He has learned things and is perhaps more observant but his basic character is unchanging.

Hannah is even less convincing. It seems that Faulks feels for her. He describes her vulnerability well but she doesn’t have much else going for her. She has been scarred by a a relationship ten years earlier and while she eventually feels strong enough to start a new relationship, it isn’t entirely obvious why this has happened.

So not exactly successful but definitely interesting. And it did make me think. Also, it reminded me of a period in history I would like to know more about. And that is always a good thing.