Surprisingly, perhaps, this is the first Sebastian Faulks novel that I’ve read and I picked it up not really knowing what to expect. To be honest, I thought it was going to be a campus novel and that is certainly how it starts off, but it soon becomes a dark psychological thriller. The novel is written in the first person and the majority is told by Engleby himself, a working-class boy who wins a place at (a thinly-disguised) Cambridge University in the early 1970s. Although my own undergraduate days were a few years later than when this is set (and I didn’t go to Oxbridge), there was much here in the description of student life that was familiar (especially the politics) and I felt waves of nostalgia washing over me as I read it.
What we actually get are a number of different Englebys – the young fresher; the more sophisticated and socialised later undergraduate; the moderately successful journalist; the mental patient. Faulks is particularly successful in managing he subtle differences between these different voices. The 40-year old voice is clearly a more mature voice than that of the 20-year old, but it equally clearly the voice of the same person. And then there is the voice of Jenny, the girl for whom Engleby develops an obsession, who appears to us through the occasional diary entry. But even Jenny’s diary is mediated to us through the voice of Engleby who relates/narrates them.
So it’s a complex book in many ways, but Faulks writing is relaxed and easy, as well as stylish, so it’s not a dificult read. I felt there was something very ‘English’ about it and I think it was because it reminded me a little of an updated Graham Greene. He certainly seems to have Greene’s sense of narrative from what I can remember. I shall certainly go back and read some of his earlier works.