I finished Engleby by Sebastian Faulks this weekend and I’ve been thinking about it on and off this week. It affected me quite powerfully because I immersed myself in the distorted perceptions of the narrator for almost two days as I was caught up in the story and I wanted to know how it would turn out.

[Spoiler alert: The discussion that follows gives away the key plot development so click away if you don’t want to know what happens. I think a lot of readers will anticipate what happens and it’s still interesting to see how Faulks gets there. But of course a lot of people will feel that their reading is spoiled if they know the key plot development in advance.]

Contemporary Writers gives an excellent synopsis:

Engleby (2007) is in many ways Faulks’ most unusual novel. It shares with Human Traces the subject of human consciousness but its setting and manner is entirely different. Instead of heroic and altruistic scientific Victorian characters, we are introduced to an-almost contemporary voice from the outset: ‘My name is Mike Engelby, and I’m in my second year at an ancient university’. This is the Cambridge of the early 1970s, replete with drinking, pop culture and dull tutorials. Engelby proceeds to tell us of his encounters there, especially with good-looking student Jennifer Arkland, whose subsequent disappearance forms the essence of the plot. Engelby proves to be an engaging narrator, even as he unveils his disturbed family history and increasingly devious behaviour, but also – of course – an untrustworthy one. He comes to admit that ‘My memory’s odd … I’m big on detail, but there are holes in the fabric’. We follow his burgeoning career in the national media as the years unfold, and his viewpoint on events becomes ever darker. As always with Faulks, the period detailing is excellent, the narrative drive strong, and full of clever contrivances. While Sebastian Faulks’ forte has been to depict romance under pressure of war, in this startling book he shows another side to his talents – summoning up an almost contemporary era as well as more disturbing aspects of humanity.

My emotional reaction to this novel was powerful. I felt sad and also quite horrified. And then I had a feeling of being used somehow and I went looking for blog reactions. It’s interesting that readers are very divided on whether they loved or hated it.

At a broader level, I wondered why it is that in most crime novels the victim is a woman (and often a pretty woman). What if he had killed a male student? Would we as readers have cared less? I was reminded of the tragic Cape Town story of the American student Amy Biehl and how her death (at the time of South Africa’s transition to democracy) became more important in many ways that the countless other deaths we read about or hear about in South Africa.

By choosing to depict one more man killing another woman, is Faulks perpetuating a dominant narrative of male violence and female victimhood? By way of comparison, the other novel set in Cambridge which I read recently is Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds. I won’t review it here but perhaps the triumph of that novel (as one reviewer pointed out) is the character of the female academic Martha Pierce. And obviously the Cambridge that is depicted there is very different from the distorted perceptions of Mike Engleby (however interesting and fascinating they might be). Hearts and Minds touched on serious issues (ethical, cultural) and was still an uplifting, enjoyable and easy read. With Engleby the going was a lot tougher at first but then I was pulled along by the powerful narrative arc.

I had a sense after reading Engleby that the female character was a means to an end and we never, even when reading her diary, really saw things from her perspective. In the background there was always the filter of Mike Engleby’s perceptions which controlled our access to this other story.

From a psychological point of view, there were a number of thought-provoking issues and it made me very curious to know more about amnestic disorders (memory disorders) and the experience of dissociation. I’m also interested to find out more about how personality disorders can be considered to constitute diminished responsibility for violent crimes. Is a personality disorder a ‘mental illness’? The expert psychiatry witness in this novel says that Mike Engleby is not mentally ill but rather that he suffers from schizoid personality disorder. But isn’t that a form of mental illness? I suppose you could have a situation in which a personality disorder would not be considered a mental illness for legal purposes but could be considered one for lay purposes.

I would favour a broader definition of mental illness for lay purposes, and I’m certainly at pains to reassure my clients who complain of anxiety or depression that their symptoms are quite common and don’t make them different or defective. When does anxiety or depression become a mental illness? And why would someone with Borderline Personality Disorder not be considered mentally ill?

And then I was remembering Adam Phillips’s contention that we are all crazy to some degree and that craziness is actually part of the human condition. For me it comes down to our ability to manage or contain that craziness. We might have the odd violent nightmare or express a wish to hurt somebody out of frustration but we wouldn’t act on this. This is what it means to be sane, to control our crazy impulses and to act in accordance with what society expects. With Engleby this wasn’t the case and the violence escaped in a very uncontained way, which he subsequently blocked off and was largely unable to remember.

I did think that Engleby was excellently written and it made a much stronger impression on me than the other Faulks that I read, which was On Green Dolphin Street (also good but I have almost no memory of it). With Engleby I had disturbed thoughts on the Saturday night as I filtered his own problems through my own experience. And then when I finished I took a drive to the supermarket and was quite relieved at the simple warmth of the brief exchange with the teller. Those transactions are quite absent from Engleby’s life where he was quite trapped in his own (brilliant but damaged) mind. His attachments were poor and everything deteriorates from the lack of real human contact.

Another interesting aspect for me was that I realised that anger, if properly expressed, could have been a redemptive force in Engleby’s life. If he was irritated with Jen for not talking to him or taking much of an interest and he was able to express this to himself then it would have been easier for him to manage the frustration and not act on it by becoming violent.

Will be interested to hear your thoughts. Hope my spoiler review was not too spoiling!

18 Responses to Engleby

  1. litlove says:

    It was Edgar Allen Poe, wasn’t it, who said that the death of a beautiful woman was the most poetic topic? Hmm, well. Mister Litlove read this and did NOT like it, which has sort of put me off reading it, although I am quite interested in Faulks’ work, generally. I tend to think all his books are internally flawed, though. What you say about Adam Philips and madness is very interesting to me, as I am recognising that whilst I’d be the first to say that ‘normality’ covers an immense spectrum of behaviour, I also tend to think that there is a way of being we ‘should’ all adhere to…. So you’ve given me lots to think about – thank you!

    • Pete says:

      Yes, I think I can see how Mister Litlove wouldn’t like it. If I wasn’t interested in the psychology of it I would probably have given up fairly early on. But I am glad I read it and Faulks is an excellent storyteller. I’m not sure that it would your kind of book though since you might find it upsetting.

  2. I’ve read Engleby twice, for some reason, and both times was drawn in and deceived by the very unreliable narrator. However, I think your question is hugely valid – why does a beautiful woman, or girl-child, have to die or be victimised to draw in our interest? This was a question I pondered all of last year while I wrote crime fiction and tried very hard to steer away from having women as victims.

    Funnily enough, I’ve also just read Hearts and Minds, and I loved it. I think Thornton is really good at writing books that aren’t from or for a specifically male or female perspective and in that way is an unusually modern writer. (Pity her publisher sees fit to market her books as if they are chick-lit, which they definitely are not.)

    • Pete says:

      Yes, the look of Hearts and Minds was quite chick-lit and the content was definitely not. And I’m impressed that you read Engleby twice! Once was enough for me (and gave me disturbed dreams). Would be interested to read your crime fiction.

  3. I think there is an incredibly powerful sexual archetype in the human collective psyche about men killing women, which does make it far more compelling in literature than men killing other men, or women killing men, or women killing women. It is, in a terrible way, the ultimate act of conquest, and it is emotionally satisfying on a primal level to the reader.

    You may be interested in the movie “Spider” with Ralph Fiennes as a mentally ill man … I think it does an amazing job of showing where the line might be between emotional illness and mental illness … and how easily that line can be crossed, given the right (or wrong) trigger.

    • Pete says:

      David – Thanks, will look out for it. And that’s an excellent point about the archetype. Makes a lot of sense and I suppose a lot of conquests have to do with killing and subjugation. But I guess there’s also a sense that authors are pandering to their readers’ blood lusts when they do that.

  4. woo says:

    I hate to say it, but I think that it is simply more common for murders to have female victims and male killers. Men ARE murdered, by other men and by women, certainly, and women ARE murdered by other women, but more murders are committed by men of women. Possibly because, in many but not all cases, women are physically weaker, as well as because sexual jealousy is a powerful motive and the majority of the population is heterosexual. So, the numbers add up.

    I’ve never been a fan of Faulks’ work, but I do like ambivalence in a novel – I dislike characters who are simply ‘evil’ – and I’m fascinated by questions of personal responsibility and ‘guilt’ – so this sounds intriguing.

  5. Pete says:

    Woo – Would be interesting to see the stats on that, whether women are more likely to be the victims of murder than men. In South Africa young men are more likely to die a violent death than women but then women are much more at risk of rape.

    Engleby very interesting in terms of personal responsibility and guilt. And the ‘evil’ in his character is so other to how he normally is that it was intriguing and disturbing to see that aspect emerge.

  6. A pal urged me to check out this post, nice post, fascinating read… keep up the good work!

  7. melanie says:

    I just finished reading Engleby and what I took from it was not a further need for facts pertaining to dissociation or personality disorders or a focus on why a book which deals heavily with the changing climate of feminism features a woman being murdered, but a need to know what actually happened. By focusing on the gender of the murdered the point of the book is being missed entirely. Don’t forget, engleby also contributed to the death of his childhood tormentor, Baynes. The reason this isn’t as focused on isn’t because the author was trying to weaken the stance of the female victim but to show how deep Engleby’s fascination with a woman could reach without being sexual, which glorifies women in a way, if anything.
    Given Engleby’s diagnosis of dissociation, we have to wonder, as the author poses the question very bluntly, what is true and what is not. The book ends with a diary entry from the murdered Jennifer Arkland detailing a night spent with Engleby on the night she was murdered in which they slept beside each other and she was left dreaming of “sparkling greek sea, aegean blue, with wooden boats, their white sails filled with love.” This leaves us wondering if perhaps Engleby invented his confession of murder by improvising what he imagined happening through his “gapped” memory and an observation that “we knew nothing of drugs. I wondered how many bright-eyed boys-their parents’ treasures, the comets of their hope-were now in Fulbourn and Park Prewett (psychiatric hospitals mentioned previously in the book), fat and trembling on the side effects of chloropromazine: an entire life, fifty indistinguishable years, in the airless urine wards of mental institutions because one fine May morning in the high spirits and skinny health of their twentieth year they’d taken a pill they didn’t understand for fun.” contributes to the idea that he had been altered by “the little blue pill” he took multiple times daily. However, maybe he invented this last diary entry of what he felt should have happened instead of her murder. The last diary entry also mentions, “lent him tee shirt and after kiss on cheek, turned away for the night”. This would explain the main piece of evidence linking Engleby to the murder which was a DNA match up of Jennifer Arkland’s blood on his shirt. However there are holes in this story as well. The tee shirt is a Donny Osmond shirt, which the book states earlier that his sister had given him a donny osmand shirt to be ironic for his birthday, not sure if it mentioned Jennifer Arkland having one as well. Also, the text states that Engleby discovered and took Jennifer’s diary from her room at a party she and her housemates had thrown before the party which she disappeared from, making it impossible for her to have written in it. By matters of deduction it’s fair to say this entry was imagined by Engleby, however with all of the holes in his story and his narration urging you to decide for yourself what is true and what is not, since he himself does not know, it’s impossible not to question.
    Maybe my mind isn’t in the right element to try and divide factual from imagined information and I should revisit this book another time. Does anyone have any insight into what they think ACTUALLY happened?

    (I apologize for any spelling, grammatical, or syntax errors. I’m typing this on my blackberry which makes it impossible to see more than about five words at a time)

    • Pete says:

      Melanie – Hi and welcome. Interesting comment. I also read that last entry as Engleby’s fantasy of what could have happened instead of his murdering her. I read it as a sign that his time in the mental hospital had worked some change in him. And Faulks does a good job of making us question Engleby’s perspective on things. I’m not sure I’m convinced by the depiction of dissociation though. I suppose he could just have completely repressed those events from his memory (aided by his blue pills) but it just didn’t completely work for me.

  8. melanie says:

    That’s basically exactly what I wondered- whether the last diary entry was imagined or the murder itself. Obviously, the murder happened but Engleby’s blame remained a question in my mind. There are so many false confessions and it’s not impossible to wonder if his was a product of self-medication. However, by inferring that the last diary entry was proof of progress through psychiatric care you’ve opened my eyes! That’s a great way to look at it.

  9. Sam says:

    I read the book in two days. I did not enjoy it. I found it to be a chore. I did not understand a good deal of it. I might read it again.

  10. Luke Smith says:

    Hi, I know this is an old review, but I just read it as part of my English A2 work. I don’t know what to think! What a great book, from the opening chapter I had Engleby on the same level as Holden Caulfield. It’s amazing how despite everything that Engleby did, Faulks makes me feel sympathy for him. You yearn for Jen to notice; to love him. An idyllic view would be that the ending was true, but it doesn’t add up that way. Stunned by the book though, and following Birdsong, Faulks can’t do much wrong in my book. Two very different stories, yet so wonderfully crafted.

  11. kathi says:

    I wondered, at the end, if the last journal entry by Jennifer was from a page or pages that Engleby had removed from the diary prior to mailing it. I can imagine that he did not, in fact, kill her, but felt somehow guilty anyway.

  12. very interesting to read all the above as my husband and I read book and he thought the diary entry at the end was the fantasy of what might have been whereas I thought it disclosed that the murder was the fantasy that had been imposed on the character by the events of the arrest. We have been trying to re read the clues to discern which was the real “truth” which is why I’m here to see what other people thought. The diary entry seems to be in Jen’s style of writing which is also why I thought it was “true”. He thinks that she couldn’t have written that entry as she was already dead. However, that suggests that Engleby could write in the voice of another (which obviously a writer, Faulks, can do) which assumes some empathy that the character has previously lacked. So perhaps we are supposed to think that the institution has helped. Altogether, I loved the book, which I read very quickly as a page-turner and enjoy the ideas of identity, fiction and truth that Faulks has obviously refused to resolve!

  13. Rachel says:

    I have just read Engelby for my book club and loved it. Have enjoyed reading these posts.I have a different sense of the final (I believe entirely fabricated) diary entry – to me the fact that Engelby after 18 (?) yrs in the institution is still completely delusional indicates the therapy has not worked at all! This novel makes me think of We Need to Talk about Kevin – for me there are parallels – did the lack of human warmth in his childhood make Engelby incapable of forming attachments or was he always like this – is it an intrinsic part of his personality ie the core of his personality disorder. What would Engelby have been like growing up in a different family, not having the hideous school experiences? Still damaged but much more functional I suspect/hope.

  14. angiebrew says:

    Thank you all! I just finished Engleby. I wondered how people interpreted the ending etc. I thought (prefered to believe?) that the final entry was the truth. He constructed false narratives of his own life, one being that he murdered Jen, partly I think to satisfy the rage in him and to give him a sense of agency. I imagined that he found her death unbearable on some level, out of his control, so he developed a fantasy wherein he was instrumental. BUT what about the boy he bullied at school? That suggests that he DID act out his rage and humiliations. And I agree now that within the narrative he stole the diary before the day of the murder / non murder. Re empathy, I think he could easily write in her style, so this could be either her or his entry. Now I think that Faulks meant it to be unresolved, and for us to have debates like this. Like Engelby, we can’t distinguish between fact and fiction, wishful thinking and reality.

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