Michael Engleby is an unsettling companion. Few would willingly keep his company. Yet here, where he is our narrator, we must.
People are a puzzle for Engleby: fluid beings who change distressingly. Relationships and conversation are largely beyond him. Others, even his mother, are shadows. We can’t be sure whether he is merely socially inept or more deeply disturbed. There are the unexplained blue 10 milligram pills he takes each evening, and the unnatural gaps in his memory; what he calls the “holes in the fabric.”
For much of the novel we can’t know about those holes, because they remain blanks to Engleby, but the fabric is disturbing enough.
He is abused by his father, who dies of cancer when Engleby is 11. He wins a scholarship to a Dotheboys Hall of a school where cruelty and criminality are bred into him. He is systematically bullied, forced to sleep in sodden sheets, and repeatedly held under the water in a freezing bath in situations where most would fear for their lives. But Engleby seems impassive, saying: “In the end that’s how everything that happens to you feels: it feels like nothing at all, really.”
He extracts his revenge on the rugby field: “sometimes there was blood on my laces,” and finally becomes an abuser himself. He establishes a network to distribute the cigarettes and alcohol he expertly shoplifts.
At Cambridge there is a girl - Jennifer - one of three friends who he admires because “these girls are better adapted than we are. They have balance; they have a flair for living.” He convinces himself – against all the evidence - that she is his girlfriend, and steals her diary so he can feel a part of her life.
And then Jennifer disappears. Into a hole in the fabric.
There is a police hunt, a Crimewatch re-enactment, and interrogation for Engleby among others, but the case is unsolved.
Engleby graduates and stumbles into journalism, that perfect refuge for the misfit and the chancer. Journalism suits Engleby because “people are more or less compelled to talk to you. This can be helpful if you don’t have that many close friends.”
[opt cut this par] He interviews Jeffrey Archer and they form some sort of friendship: “Although he appears to be off his trolley, he’s apparently very highly regarded in the Conservative Party. They keep offering him important positions.” (There are constant flashes of such humour though the novel: a counterpoint to the disturbing narrative.) [end opt cut]
But, while the past may be buried, it isn’t dead. The holes in the fabric close up and we are drawn into the disturbing heart of the mystery of Engleby: the mystery, as his mother describes it, of the little boy who “had died, or got lost somewhere on the way.”
Engleby is a leap forward from Human Traces, Faulks’s 2005 account of two pioneers of psychiatry. It is as if the former were research for the latter, where psychiatry informs the narrative but does not dominate it. Where Human Traces can best be described as ambitious, Engleby is accomplished.