CC Issue 39 / Literature

Engleby

I am in unchartered territory. I have never written a book review before. There is something about them that makes me hesitate. What are they for? I rarely read the book section of the newspaper cultural supplement and I can recall just one book I have bought on the back of reading a review (‘Edgelands’ by Farley and Roberts). How can a column of descriptive and critical prose convey the subjective experience of reading a new novel? The latest Louis de Berniere may be ‘superb,’ but if you don’t like him you’re unlikely to like it. And you won’t know if you like him until you try one. As to predicting the likelihood of your liking or disliking his work, surely your friend stands in a stronger position to the expert from The Times? Recommendations, not reviews, hold greater sway.

Having said all that, I do enjoy a retrospective foray into reviews and comments on a book after I have read it if it has been a particularly enjoyable and thought- provoking read. Much in the same way as finding someone else who has read the book, hearing another’s thoughts and ideas can help process and develop your own thinking and enriches the whole experience.

It is for this reason I offer up this ‘review’ of Engleby, a novel by Sebatian Faulks I finished reading this week. It is an absorbing tale written in the first person about Michael Engleby, a working class undergraduate at Cambridge University in 1974. It begins in the slightly clunky, perfunctory single clause style of a male journal: ‘My name is Mike Engelby, and I’m in my second year at an ancient university.’ However, you’re quickly absorbed by this character who seems to intrigue and draw you in, but certainly make you stop short of saying you like him. Early reactions included respect (clearly intelligent and content in his own company), pity (horrendous scenes of ritual and institutional bullying at his boarding school), humour (cynical but astute).

Yet as the book develops, Faulks seems to gently and subtly move you until, like a passenger in a bus with no windows, you get out and realise you’ve travelled 100 miles. For a start, as I found myself wondering why someone of such intelligence wrote in such a simple way until I realised that, without consciously realising, the writing style had totally changed since page 1. Flowing, exuberant, almost pretentious prose expanding on the dimensions of time had replaced the early single clauses (a point explicitly commented on by Engleby himself later on). At the same time, probing questions start to rise about who enigma of a man really is: is he content in his own company or actually a loner? Where are his friends? Does he just like pubs, or is he an alcoholic? Is that intelligent humour or contempt for everyone but himself? Do I really know him at all?

All the while huge themes of the human condition (are we defined by the ability to feel shame?), mortality (we are all atoms to be recycled), time (cyclical or linear?) and progress (‘Mr 2003…Got a cure for the common cold yet?) cycle round a mind that is clearly brilliant on the inside but increasingly seems closed to the outside.

Yet it was only when the book begins to reach its climax that I couldn’t put it down. In the last quarter you’re finally granted access to the views others hold of Engleby, and you suddenly feel like the man stumbling around for years who has just had cataract surgery. All those thoughts and impressions and hunches are made crystal clear, and you celebrate all the more this ingenious creation from the author.

This really is a terrific book. I hope I haven’t said too much. You may wish to read it. More likely, if you have already read it you may find some pleasure in reading another’’s thoughts and comparing them to your own. Either way, I’m looking forward to Sebastian Faulks’ James Bond…!

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