1st edition (Hutchinson)
|Preceded by||Human Traces|
|Followed by||Devil May Care|
Engleby is a novel by the author Sebastian Faulks. It tells the tale of a working-class boy who wins a place at an esteemed university and becomes a murder mystery after the disappearance of a girl at a nearby college.
Mike Engleby attends an 'ancient university' studying English at first, but switches over to natural sciences after he begins to doubt the legitimacy of the subject. He is infatuated with a girl named Jennifer Arkland, whose name he only discovered on posters advertising her running for a society committee. He begins to attend the society she does to see her, and attends her history lectures, in a different faculty, despite not studying it.
He does not perform as well as expected on his second year exams but takes part in the production of a student film in Ireland involving Jennifer. While there he reads Jen's letters and begins to reflect about his past.
He remembers his time at a grammar school, his dad's death and his subsequent scholarship to Chatfield – a public school for the children of navy servicemen.
At Chatfield he was bullied by the prefects and by other students, gaining the name "Toilet Engleby" for asking for permission to go to the toilet rather than "lavatory" during a lesson. One prefect, Baynes, steals a cake sent to him by his mother and later forces Engleby to take a bath in cold water. He begins to steal, at first to pay for letters to his sister, but he soon escalates to frequent theft and begins to buy cigarettes to sell on to other pupils.
Baynes breaks his legs and suffers head injuries in a supposed accident. Mike meets a boy named Stevens whom he takes an immediate dislike to. He is outgoing, enthusiastic, plays rugby and is liked by his year. His final memory of Chatfield is of forcing Stevens to take a cold bath, just as Baynes had done to him.
Jennifer Arkland disappears half-way through her final year after a party attended by Mike, who at some point stole Jennifer's diary, beginning to read and memorise the contents. During the police investigation Mike is questioned and claims to the officers that Jennifer was his girlfriend, to which they respond that some other people questioned had said that he was a homosexual. His alibi fails to stand up but no concrete evidence against him is found and the investigation is suspended.
Mike fails to attain a first in his final exams. He moves to London and makes a living by drug dealing, eventually becoming a journalist. He assumes the name Michele Watt as the left-wing paper he writes for is seeking to have more female writers. After a while he changes his assumed name to Michael Watson, as he claims he no longer needs to pretend to be a woman and it was convenient for him to keep a similar name.
He reveals that during his time at university he began to have panic attacks and has been taking 'blue pills' on the advice of a doctor at a mental hospital he was taken to after collapsing during a panic attack.
He meets and starts a relationship with a woman working at the same paper, Margaret, whom he then moves in with.
Years later, Jennifer's body is unearthed and Mike is called in for questioning. It is revealed that a shirt the officers took from his college rooms during the investigation was checked using newly developed DNA techniques and was shown to have Jennifer's blood on it.
Mike pleads guilty to the murder of Jennifer Arkland. He explains that he murdered Jennifer as she came home from a party, offering her a ride and refusing to let her get out. He drove to a remote location and, when she offered to do anything to be let go, he killed her. He adds that he also may have murdered a German woman called Gudrun Abendroth in London and had attacked Baynes while at Chatfield, causing injuries, then thought to be accidental, which contributed to Baynes' premature death some time later.
He pleads limited responsibility and after analysis by psychiatrist Dr. Exley he is diagnosed with a personality disorder and is sent to a mental institution. He is never released but eventually attains a sense of peace, teaching many of the other patients various basic skills.
The narration is from the perspective of Engleby himself, who often obscures and misrepresents the events around him. This is most noticeable in the disappearance of Jennifer, to which he gives no indication of his involvement until the very end of the novel.
Engleby suffers from numerous panic attacks throughout the course of the novel and takes medication to prevent symptoms of anxiety. He occasionally alludes to feeling isolated, but rejects the idea that he suffers from depression.
Treatment of women
Engleby objectifies Jennifer throughout the novel. He stalks her by following her into lectures and attending her societies. He is frustrated when she attempts to leave the car after he gives her a lift home and murders her for being scared of him when he drives her off into a secluded area. Both he and his friend Stellings consider women to be inferior, and dismiss demands for sexual equality as 'flak from grumpy feminists', calling ideas of female equality 'lies'.
Reviews of the novel were mixed, with many critics citing the almost unlikable narrator as a negative factor.
Phil Hogan of The Observer said, "The character of Engleby's oddness, though, is harder to fathom. His prose has that flat, stilted quality familiar to the modern reader as a sign of moral vacuity, but does he have to be so uninteresting with it?" He went on to say, "The eventual arrival of men in white coats – a welcome introduction of sane voices – heralds the most successful section of the book. Relieved of the burden of faux suspense, ideas kept at the fringe by passing ephemera are foregrounded, themes blossom. This, you sense, is what Faulks has been waiting for – the chance to engage more directly with his subject. His prose, freed from the shackles of a troubled mind, starts to shine too. The trouble is it shines too late."
Jane Shilling of The Telegraph said, "Like Human Traces, Engleby is distinguished by a remarkable intellectual energy: a narrative verve, technical mastery of the possibilities of the novel form and vivid sense of the tragic contingency of human life."
Terrence Rafferty of The New York Times said, "At one point, near the end, when both the character and his creator seem to be getting slightly desperate, Engleby throws out the possibility that the 'idea of self' may be no more than a 'necessary fiction.' Maybe it is. 'Engleby' isn't."
- Book page on Sebastian Faulks's website
- The Independent, 18 May 2007, 'Sad lad, or mad lad?' 
- The Guardian, 8 May 2007, The digested read: Engleby by Sebastian Faulks