This novel had everything to be a winner with me: a scholarly atmosphere, the fact that a big part of it is located in Cambridge, of all places (I love Cambridge), and last but not least, a first-person narrator, Mike Engleby, which, very early on, appears to be pretty unreliable. But, despite all the right ingredients being there, Engleby fell a bit short of my expectations. While reading the novel, I was at loss to explain why, until I stumbled upon a judgment on Engleby by his only friend from college, and which could very well apply for the novel itself: "I think if you had to sum up Mike you’d say he was an interesting man but he just wasn’t much fun to be with". This is exactly what I felt about the novel: it was interesting but not much fun to read…

For the first 40 pages, I was unable to get into this novel, then when Engleby starts to tell about being bullied in Public School, it suddenly became quite riveting. And then, my interest diminished again. In fact, throughout the reading, I alternated between moments when I couldn’t put the book down and moments where I had to struggle not to put it down, for good.

We are warned from the start that Engleby is an unreliable narrator. Although he has an exceptional memories, he has blanks: "My memory’s odd like that. I’m big on details, but there are holes in the fabric." Starting from the point where he is interviewed for a scholarship in a Cambridge College, he moves onward to his adult life in London as a journalist. But time is not linear, as he likes to say, and Engleby takes advantage from this fact. Sometimes he withholds information until he feels ready to revisit the past and write about it, or he just remembers something from his past that he had completely forgotten. So that Engleby is always one step ahead of the reader, and the puzzle only becomes complete towards the end (if it ever is…) Giving away more about the plot would be spoiling it for the reader, I believe…

Engleby is a complex character: he is a loner, a pub crawler, a drug addict, but also a man with a high I.Q. Though he rarely mixes with other people, when he shares his views, he shows strong and politically incorrect opinions about literature studies, politics, or immigration. There are one or two really hilarious passages about artist’s late works or 18th century novels for instance (About Pamela: "Posterity didn’t tell Richardson he’d done a fine job; posterity told him he’d done an early job. You wouldn’t want to fly in a Wright Brothers plane now"). Beside these witty comments, the best part of the novel is in the last chapters, when we can compare the image we have of the narrator through his own description of himself, and the one that emerges from other point of views. The discrepancy between the physical image I had formed of him, and the portrait given by his friend is an example of how we can be misled by an unreliable narrator.

What does explain my lack of enthusiasm for the novel, then? When written through the narrator’s voice, the narration is flat, wearisome, claustrophobic. I felt grateful for the parts where other narrators were involved, although I found the choice of conveying pages of a young woman’s diary complete with abbreviations a very bad idea as far as readability is concerned. Maybe Faulks’s novel suffers from a scruple of authenticity. The author wanted to be true to how Engleby viewed the world, or how a young woman would write a diary intended for her eyes only. As a result, reading the novel is sometimes a tedious experience.

As I said in the beginning, all the ingredients were there to make it a great novel, and although I have never read any other Faulks novel, I am convinced that in other hands, this one could have been a masterpiece…

Rating: 3/5