Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New Release Spotlight: Engleby

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Creating an unreliable character may seem like it would be easy: create someone totally crazy, with shifting motivations. Perhaps a drunk. But of course all that does is create a reliable character—reliably over the top. In his latest novel, Engleby, Sebastian Faulks uses grays, rather than blacks and whites, to paint a fifty-year portrait of Mike Engleby, whom the reader first meets as a teenager in 1970s England.

Engleby is either terrorized or ignored by his classmates, leading the reader to sympathize with the boy whose only crime seems to have been being unlucky. But then Engleby shares a detail such as the time he met a beggar: “Dear God, a facetious beggar. A postgrad wino. I didn’t feel like giving him money. I felt like taking his money—like elbowing him in the teeth, clearing out his pockets and selling off his dog for dog meat.” The reader begins to wonder how much compassion Engleby deserves.

Engleby is funny, wondering if one becomes a social geographer by reading articles such as “Oxbow Lakes and the Non-Egalitarian Aquifer” and “Tectonic Plate Shift and the Command Economy,” but he is also a mean comic, as when during a heart-to-heart with his sister, he notes that “Julie liked to give ideas a name familiar to her, and get them into boxes small enough to handle easily.” Engleby shares some interesting thoughts about loneliness and history and uniquely observes that a woman’s “black nylon calves crackled” and that a song had a “gluey organ intro,” but his descriptions are not always so benign. A girl dancing flirtatiously at him is not beautiful but instead “like a dog emerging from water” and his need to steal a young woman’s bike is not joking or even unthinkingly mean; rather it’s to make her less independent. His observations swing wildly from funny and introspective to creepy and ugly.

And yes, Engleby drinks and takes drugs. He does so with a darkness not standard for the typical teenager and talks about headaches and forgetfulness of whole events, but he’s also functional, scoring well in school and earning for himself a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

Readers may be sucked in by the book jacket’s talk of missing Jennifer Arkland—was Engleby involved?—but Engleby himself is more of a plot than “just” a character. It’s impossible to do justice to the subtlety and brashness of his ideas, moods, and stories in a short review. Thankfully there’s more than three hundred pages of him waiting—perhaps lurking—at the local bookstore.

Review by Kristin Thiel, Indigo Editing, LLC

ISBN: 978-0-385-52405-6
Publisher: Doubleday
Pub. Date: September 2007
Hardcover: $24.95

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