“Have you ever been lonely? No, neither have I. Solitary, yes. Alone, certainly. But lonely means minding about being on your own. I'...

Book Review: Engleby, Sebastian Faulks

“Have you ever been lonely? No, neither have I. Solitary, yes. Alone, certainly. But lonely means minding about being on your own. I've never minded about it.”

Mike Engleby is an odd young man, a loner. A student at a prestigious university, and a heavy abuser of drugs and alcohol. He hangs around on the edges of social groups, always there but never quite fitting in, always watching the girl he calls his "girlfriend" but never really speaking to her, just hoping that she'll notice him if he hangs around long enough.

That is, until she disappears one day, without a trace.

I've only read one other book by Sebastian Faulks: A Week in December. I don't know if I was in a bad mood or it was the book's fault, but (and I have to be careful here - I've recently learned the soft way that authors can stumble across this blog and read my shit reviews despite my warnings that they shouldn't) I found it to be trying too hard, being far too pleased with itself. Although, saying that, it might have been how it was sold to me too. I was told it was brilliant, genius, an amazing creation of a mind that thinks on a plane far above our own. I didn't think it was.

Anyway. Because of that, I went into this expecting the same thing - writing that was quite impressed with itself, a topic that might seem deep in the blurb but was actually a bit fluffy and shallower than expected, an unsatisfying experience all round. But, I'm pleased to say, I was very, very wrong.

"My name is Mike Engleby, and I'm in my second year at an ancient university." That's how it begins. A refreshingly simple beginning, I think, since there is so much pressure on novelists to grab you by the throat and wave you around in the first paragraph (which, of course, leads to such ridiculous opening sentences that there's a whole competition dedicated to coming up with them). From there, from a voice that is distinct and well-formed and quite unreliable, we learn all about his social life (or lack thereof), his forgetfulness, his childhood, and his obsession with Jennifer, the girl who disappears.

It's gripping. I loved it. There's character development, humour, intrigue. Engleby is likeable, despite (or maybe because of) his oddness. I think so, anyway. I'd read a couple of reviews that disagreed, and a few that said there was too much telling and not enough showing, that Faulks seemed too desperate for us to come along on the journey with him; but I didn't notice any of that. Maybe I was too excited, I don't know.

Then, in the middle, it dipped a bit. After Jennifer's disappearance, we follow Engleby as he stumbles into adulthood and normal life, drifting away from his extreme social difficulties and into a pretty average life that we thought he probably never could have had. Here, we get some waffling that I don't think is all that necessary, and a lot of predicting the future (the book is set in the seventies and eighties, mostly) which of course has already been lived by Faulks, so is "amusingly" accurate, but not amusing enough to be rewarding. I started to think Faulks had lost interest in the character and just decided to wander off on a tangent and never come back.

I think this bit could probably have been fifty or sixty pages shorter. Maybe.

Either way, the ending is brilliant again. All the issues Engleby has bubble up to the surface, what happened in the past comes back to get him, and Faulks's research (which must have been extensive) pays off in a massive way. As usual, I don't want to include spoilers, so I won't go into what happens, but the loose ends are tied up and it's hard not to be impressed. All of this might all be a bit too neat and convenient for some people, and I wouldn't blame them; but for me, it worked. Faulks definitely walks the line between Brilliance and Trying Too Hard, but this time, I think he stays on the right side for the majority of the time.

So, at the end, I was satisfied. I had enjoyed myself. This is what reading is about, yes it is yes it is. 4/5.

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