(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 7, 2007)
"We may think as we grow older that we know more, but in truth no one has an overarching view, no one can see in the round. We are like cards in a pack, and the king of spades is a better thing to be than the two of diamonds; but none of us is a dealer or a player with free will and power to dispose; none of us can see or understand the value of the entire deck, let alone the rules of the game in which it's employed. Even the best of us is no more than an inert piece of card with some markings."
Recreating the life of Mike Engleby from his childhood in the 1960s until 2006, when he is fifty-two, author Sebastian Faulks achieves remarkable success in making this novel both readable and intriguing. He is hard-pressed to make the main character interesting in his own right, however, since Engleby has spent his whole life avoiding contact with other people. The only clues we have about his interior life come from his own account, in which he sometimes blames others (such as his tormentors during his boarding school days), or from his statements in which he says he genuinely prefers to be alone. "One of the hardest things about being alive is being with other people," he says, cryptically, expressing the reason that the character of Engleby is such a formidable challenge for both the reader and the writer. Most fictional characters come alive through the reader's observations of the characters' interrelationships with each other, but Engleby denies the reader this access.
Though he has little interest in communicating his innermost thoughts, Engleby is effusive in providing details about his physical surroundings and daily life, with the smallest details taking on significance for him. Recording everything in a journal (which becomes this novel), he begins with his early childhood and stories of his father's beatings and continues through college and until long after he has become a journalist, shared his life with a woman, and participated in bringing up her child. Because he will not let the reader know him, however, the reader must often depend on accounts of important events provided by other people. As these events become more numerous and begin to involve Engleby more directly, the author develops significant suspense which leads to a dramatic climax.
It is not possible to provide a plot summary here without including spoilers. It is enough to know that the novel becomes a psychological study of this increasingly remote character and his relationship to events around him. Engleby is very bright, a poet who has changed majors from English to natural history. In college he worships a girl from afar, though he works as a drug dealer, also meeting his financial needs through picking pockets, and stealing. Years later, as a journalist, he arranges his work schedule so that he can have a very private life, rarely appearing at the office. He spends a great deal of time driving around, stopping at bars, drinking heavily, and relying on pills, both licit and illicit. His almost photographic memory is marred by moments of amnesia.
Faulks's prodigious narrative talents, expressed through Engleby's journal, keep this novel moving, despite the reader's possible puzzlement over where, exactly, it is going and why. Though the reader does not really know Engleby or his relationship to dramatic events till late in the novel, Engleby, roaming through his life, keeps the reader occupied until that time by commenting on wars, the displacement and anger of immigrants, the concept of past and present, and questions of who we are and who we might have been. This is almost enough to keep the reader fully engaged.
When the novel finally hits its climax, however, the number of revelations (and the number of loose ends not connected) is startling. Psychiatric reports provided in the last third of the novel help to fill in the blanks and provide resolution, even as Engleby himself is giving his opinions of Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq. An unusual novel, significant for its distanced, disconnected, and almost impenetrable main character, Engleby lacks the straightforward direction of a novel like Birdsong, while providing the reader with an opportunity to play detective or psychologist.
- Amazon readers rating: from 40 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Trick of the Light (1984)
- The Girl at the Lion D'Or (1989)
- A Fool's Alphabet (1992)
- Birdsong (1993)
- Charlotte Gray (1998)
- On Green Dolphin Street (2001)
- Human Traces (2005)
- Engleby (2007)
- A Week in December (2010)
- A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts (2012)
Officially sanctioned James Bond Novel:
- Devil May Care (2008)
- Jeeves and the Wedding Bells (November 2013)
Movies from Books:
- Charlotte Gray (2002)
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- Wikipedia Page for Sebastian Faulks
- British Council page on Sebastian Faulks
- Reading Guide for Charlotte Gray
- BookReporter.com review of On Green Dolphin Street
- Guardian Unlimited review of Human Traces
- MostlyFiction.com review of A Week in December
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About the Author:
Sebastian Faulks was born in 1953 and was educated at Wellington College and Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He was the first literary editor of The Independent and became deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday before leaving in 1991 to concentrate on writing. He has been a columnist for The Guardian (1992-8) and the Evening Standard (1997-9). He continues to contribute articles and reviews to a number of newspapers and magazines. He wrote and presented the Channel 4 Television series "Churchill's Secret Army," screened in 1999. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
He has recently been commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate to write a new James Bond novel to mark the centenary of Ian Fleming's birth in 2008.
Sebastian Faulks lives with his wife and three children in London.