What is wrong with Mike Engleby? Is he really just a working class kid at Cambridge? Is he a sly drug dealer and petty thief? Is he a stalker, a psychopath and a murderer? Perhaps he is just a misunderstood genius. In ENGLEBY, author Sebastian Faulks introduces an unreliable narrator in the tradition of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. This subtly sinister novel is smart, creepy and unforgettable, just like Mike himself.
In the early 1970s Mike finds himself at Cambridge on scholarship. He actually never names the "ancient university," referring to it instead by clever nicknames both telling and obscuring the truth (this paradox is a key personality trait of his and an important theme in the novel). Mike has survived a brutal childhood, abused by his father and then by classmates at the exclusive boarding school he attended (also on scholarship). It was recognized early on that Mike was smart, but he seemed to attract bullies and trouble. He shares all of this with readers with an eerie detachment.
Cambridge looks like it will be more of the same loneliness and trauma for Mike until he meets Jennifer Arkland, an earnest and attractive young student who catches his eye. Soon Mike is joining the clubs that Jennifer joins and attending her lectures, even though he is enrolled in a different program. They both travel to Ireland to work on a student film. When Jennifer disappears one night after a party, readers are unsure of Mike's connection to the event. Is he really as heartbroken as he says he is at her disappearance, or was he in some way responsible?
The police are curious about Mike and the real nature of his relationship with Jennifer. But there is nothing to connect him to her disappearance, so Mike goes on his way. Despite the fact that he starts working as a journalist, even getting a girlfriend along the way, and seems to lead a normal, if somewhat solitary life, tension continues to build for the reader. Mike is full of rage and sadness. Add to that a drug problem, a keen intelligence, a photographic memory for most things coupled with great gaps in memory concerning other things and an enormous ego, and you have the makings of...well, just what is unclear. Is Mike a reliable source of information about himself, or are readers being manipulated as he tells his story?
One thing is certain. As the decades go by, Mike continues to be obsessed with Jennifer, and when the police come calling on him again, the novel takes a new and frightening direction as some of the secrets he has been keeping are revealed.
ENGLEBY is a very literate book: well crafted and with a nod to classic tales and great authors. Mike is strange and intelligent (but perhaps less so than he thinks), secretive and angry, and one of the most interesting and scary characters in recent memory. Faulks's narration is slow at times, but the mystery of Jennifer's disappearance help make the pace more bearable, and the clinical evaluations of Mike at the end of the book are great, as are the characters' responses to them.
Truth and memory are repeatedly called into question throughout the novel. While Faulks may not have nailed the voice and inner workings of a sociopath, he has written a successful psychological thriller --- at once suspenseful, funny and frightening.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 27, 2011