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Engleby: A Novelby Sebastian Faulks
Synopses & Reviews
Bestselling British author Sebastian Faulks reinvents the unreliable narrator with his singular, haunting creation — Mike Engleby.
"My name is Mike Engleby, and I'm in my second year at an ancient university."
With that brief introduction we meet one of the most mesmerizing, singular voices in a long tradition of disturbing narrators. Despite his obvious intelligence and compelling voice, it is clear that something about solitary, odd Mike is not quite right. When he becomes fixated on a classmate named Jennifer Arkland and she goes missing, we are left with the looming question: Is Mike Engleby involved? As he grows up, finding a job and even a girlfriend in London, Mike only becomes more and more detached from those around him in an almost anti-coming-of-age. His inability to relate to others and his undependable memory (able to recall countless lines of text yet sometimes incapable of summoning up his own experiences from mere days before) lead the reader down an unclear and often darkly humorous path where one is never completely comfortable or confident about what is true.
Mike Engleby is a chilling and unforgettable character, and Engleby is a novel that will surprise and beguile Sebastian Faulks' readership.
"British bestseller Faulks's latest (after Human Traces) comprises the dark confessional of Mike Engleby, an intelligent but strange university student suspected in a woman's disappearance. His journal-like account of his life, which begins in the turbulent 1970s and extends to 2006, includes day-to-day accounts of college life, pontifications on time, politics and the nature of thought, and flashbacks to his childhood — particularly the years he spent as a scholarship student at the exclusive Chatfield, where he was taunted and abused by his classmates (they, among other things, called him Toilet). As the journal progresses, his obsession with university student Jennifer Arkland deepens: he reads her mail, sits in on her classes, joins her political society and becomes involved in her student film. When Jennifer disappears after a party and is presumed dead, Mike finds himself under police investigation. The case remains open for over a decade, and Mike continues on with his life, but Jen is never far from his thoughts, and as he continues to return in his mind to Jen's disappearance, he reveals more about that night and about himself. Though sometimes heavy with the tropes of self-deception and misdirection, this is a compelling psychological portrait of a man who is at once profoundly disturbed and wryly funny. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Sebastian Faulks' brilliant new novel, 'Engleby,' seems like a page torn from Camus, updated with a slew of scientific arguments questioning the very concept of selfhood. The edgy narrator, Mike Engleby, suffers bouts of memory loss and tells us up front that he might or might not have committed the brutal murder of his classmate Jennifer Arkland. He does not know for sure, but he is fixated on her.... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Beware: 'Engleby' is no ordinary whodunit. Faulks seems intent on bigger game in this psychologically and philosophically disturbing story. With artistry and skill, he turns a would-be murder mystery into a meditation on consciousness. Early on in the novel, Engleby, a student of no small merit, switches out of English into the natural sciences, telling us, 'I don't miss English at all. No one explained what we were meant to do.' He is that near-anomaly, a man of letters in a world of science. As the plot develops, he struggles to define himself as he comes under police scrutiny. Engleby's sense of estrangement from his peers seems rooted in being demeaned, bullied and tortured as a scholarship student from a working-class background, first at Wellington and then at Cambridge. He acquired the nickname 'Toilet' after asking to be excused from class one day to go to the bathroom. The relentless taunting he endured went a long way toward creating his mordant sense of psychotic aloneness. Most of the novel is set in the 1980s, and the voice in which Engleby narrates it can sound both shrill and estranged. With characteristic directness, he confesses, 'The Churches, above all. Their emptiness. God has been to Earth — and gone away. That did occasionally make me feel lonely.' At other times, he relies on scientific metaphors. He speaks, for instance, of his sense of self as under threat by the 'hostile otherness of my surroundings ... such that my own personality was starting to disintegrate. I was vanishing. My character, my identity, had unraveled. I was a particle of fear.' This reduction of the self to atoms and molecules is not a mere conceit, but central to the notion of who or what we are. And in the mind of a disturbed murder suspect, this sense of examination takes on chilling portent: Are we a mere concoction of chemicals, as Engleby suggests? And if so, what does this do to our sense of morality and how we mete out justice? As the novel progresses, the leads in the Arkland case grow cold, and Faulks seems to abandon the murder plot. Indeed, Engleby tells us, 'I haven't thought about Jennifer Arkland for years.' Instead, we spend untold pages watching as Engleby becomes a journalist. This section seems rife with details from the author's own career, including interviews with British literary and political luminaries that sound like the sort of thing Faulks might have conducted himself. He ably depicts the social and emotional landscape of England in the 1980s, a country in transition as a new conservative government dismantles social programs. While interviewing Mrs. Thatcher, Engleby asks her if she has any regrets over the riots in Brixton, the miners' strike or the Falklands War. The prime minister replies by quoting St. Francis: 'Too much looking back is a weariness to the soul.' This dismissal of the past is an eerie and haunting sentiment for a murderer to consider. The latter part of the novel includes a solicitor's legal brief, with a detailed review of psychiatric literature and an assessment of Engleby's psychosis. While confined to a mental institution, Engleby reflects on his life, summarizing current scientific theories and asserting, after almost 18 years in confinement, that 'self is an illusion generated by the chemical activity of the brain; that there is no such thing as "mind," that there is only matter. ... The idea of self has become a "necessary fiction."' What is profoundly disturbing throughout the novel is Engleby's lack of remorse. He's caught up in a scientific theory that describes an arbitrary universe of mere molecules. One wonders, is this where the defense of defenseless acts will take us in the near future, to an indictment of atoms, and not the self, not the person? Michael Collins' latest novel is 'Death of a Writer.'" Reviewed by Michael Collins, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[T]itillating, ultimately engrossing....Faulks knows exactly how to keep the reader off-balance in this deft, funny, scary combination of suspense and psychic exploration." Kirkus Reviews
"This gripping tour de force is highly recommended." Library Journal
"Sebastian Faulks takes his readers on an unexpected spin." Denver Post
"It's soon clear that Engleby is a most unreliable narrator, and Sebastian Faulks' Engleby little more than a stuffy writing exercise whose supposedly big revelations drop with thudding inevitability. (Grade: B-)" Entertainment Weekly
"Faulks...renders luminous prose, but this time it gets lost amid a rambling tale told by a narcissist with little of consequence to say. A disappointment from a talented writer, but still of interest to Faulks' followers." Booklist
"[C]ompulsively readable yet deeply disturbing....To read Engleby is to be carried in the arms of a master. Engleby's narrative tone seems dispassionate and removed and the story he weaves is much more complex than initially appears." Denver Post
"The novel may be uneven, but Engleby himself — funny, fiercely intelligent, unreliable, arrogant and solipsistic — is an intriguing, at times mesmerizing creation." San Francisco Chronicle
Bestselling British author Faulks reinvents the unreliable narrator with his singular, haunting creation Mike Engleby, who leads the reader down an unclear and often darkly humorous path where one is never completely comfortable or confident about what is true.
About the Author
Sebastian Faulks worked as a journalist for fourteen years before taking up writing full-time in 1991. In 1995 he was voted "Author of the Year" by the British Book Awards for Birdsong, his fourth novel and his second, following A Fool's Alphabet, to be published in the United States. He is also the author of Human Traces, On Green Dolphin Street, Charlotte Gray, The Fatal Englishman, and The Girl at the Lion d'Or. He lives in London with his wife and three children.
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