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Bestselling British author Sebastian Faulks reinvents the unreliable narrator with his singular, haunting creation—Mike Engleby.
"My name is Mike Engleby, and I'm in my second year at an ancient university."
With that brief introduction we meet one of the most mesmerizing, singular voices in a long tradition of disturbing narrators. Despite his obvious intelligence and compelling voice, it is clear that something about solitary, odd Mike is not quite right. When he becomes fixated on a classmate named Jennifer Arkland and she goes missing, we are left with the looming question: Is Mike Engleby involved? As he grows up, finding a job and even a girlfriend in London, Mike only becomes more and more detached from those around him in an almost anti-coming-of-age. His inability to relate to others and his undependable memory (able to recall countless lines of text yet sometimes incapable of summoning up his own experiences from mere days before) lead the reader down an unclear and often darkly humorous path where one is never completely comfortable or confident about what is true.
Mike Engleby is a chilling and unforgettable character, and Engleby is a novel that will surprise and beguile Sebastian Faulks' readership.
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Sebastian Faulks worked as a journalist for fourteen years before taking up writing full-time in 1991. In 1995 he was voted Author of the Year by the British Book Awards for Birdsong, his fourth novel and his second, following A Fool's Alphabet, to be published in the United States. He is also the author of Human Traces, On Green Dolphin Street, Charlotte Gray, The Fatal Englishman, and The Girl at the Lion d’Or. He lives in London with his wife and three children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My name is Mike Engleby, and I’m in my second year at an ancient university. My college was founded in 1662, which means it’s viewed here as modern. Its chapel was designed by Hawksmoor, or possibly Wren; its gardens were laid out by someone else whose name is familiar. The choir stalls were carved by the only woodcarver you’ve ever heard of. The captain of the Boat Club won a gold medal at an international games last year. (I think he’s studying physical education.) The captain of cricket has played for Pakistan, though he talks like the Prince of Wales. The teachers, or “dons,” include three university professors, one of whom was on the radio recently talking about lizards. He’s known as the Iguanodon.
Tonight I won’t study in my room because there’s the weekly meeting of the Folk Club. Almost all the boys in my college go to this, not for the music, though it’s normally quite good, but because lots of girl students come here for the evening. The only boys who don’t go are those with a work compulsion, or the ones who think folk music died when Bob Dylan went electric.
There’s someone I’ve seen a few times, called Jennifer Arkland. I discovered her name because she stood for election to the committee of a society. On the posters, the candidates had small pictures of themselves and, under their names and colleges, a few personal details. Hers said: “Second–year History exhibitioner. Previously educated at Lymington High School and Sorbonne. Hobbies: music, dance, film–making, cooking. Would like to make the society more democratic with more women members and have more outings.”
I’d seen her in the tea room of the University Library, where she was usually with two other girls from her college, a fat one called Molly and a severe dark one, whose name I hadn’t caught. There was often Steve from Christ’s or Dave from Jesus sniffing round them.
I think I’ll join this society of hers. It doesn’t matter what it’s for because they’re all the same. They’re all called something Soc, short for Society. Lab Soc, Lit Soc, Geog Soc. There’s probably a knitting group called Sock Soc.
I’ll find out about Jen Soc, then go along so I can get to know her better.
I won a prize to come to my college and it pays my fees; my family’s poor. I took a train from school one day after I’d sat the exams and had been called for interview. I must have stayed in London on the way, but I have no memory of it. My memory’s odd like that. I'm big on detail, but there are holes in the fabric. I do remember that I took a bus from the station, though I didn’t know then what my college looked like. I went round the whole city and ended up back at the station, having made the round trip. Then I took a taxi and had to borrow some money from the porter to pay for it. I still had a pound note in my wallet for emergencies.
They gave me a key to a bedroom; it was in a courtyard that I reached by a tunnel under the road. I imagined what kind of student lived there normally. I pictured someone called Tony with a beard and a duffel coat. I tried really hard to like the room and the college that was going to be mine. I imagined bicycling off to lectures in the early morning with my books balanced on a rack over the back wheel. I'd be shouting out to the other guys, “See you there!” I’d probably smoke a pipe. I’d also probably have a girlfriend—some quite stern grammar school girl with glasses, who wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste.
In fact, I didn’t like the room I was in that night. It was damp, it was small and it felt as though too many people had been through it. It didn’t seem old enough; it didn’t seem 17th century, or modern: it was more like 1955. Also, there was no bathroom. I found one up the stairs. It was very cold and I had to stay dressed until the bath was run. The water itself was very hot. Everything in the room and on the stairs smelled slightly of gas, and lino.
I slept fine, but I didn't want to have breakfast in the dining hall because of having to talk to the other candidates. I went along the street and found a cafe and had weak coffee and a sausage roll, which I paid for from my spare pound. I re-entered the college by the main gate. The porter was sullen in his damp lodge with a paraffin heater. “G12, Dr. Woodrow’s rooms,” he said. I found it all right, and there was another boy waiting outside. He looked clever.
Eventually, the door opened and it was my turn. There were two of them in there: a big schoolmasterly man who showed me to a chair, then sat down at a desk; and a younger, thin man with a beard who didn't get up from his armchair. Teachers at my school didn’t have beards.
“You wrote well on Shakespeare. Do you visit the theatre a good deal?” This was the big one talking. It sounded too much like an ordinary conversation to be an interview. I suspected a trap. I told him there wasn’t a theatre where we lived, in Reading.
I was watching him all the time. How grand, to be a Doctor of whatever and to weigh up and decide people’s future. I’d once seen a set of table mats in a shop which had pictures of men in different academic gowns: Doctor of Divinity, Master of Arts and so on. But this was the first real one I'd seen. He asked me a few more things, none of them interesting.
"...the poetry of Eliot. Would you care to make a comparison between Eliot and Lawrence?"
This was the younger one, and it was his first contribution. I thought he must be joking. An American banker interested in the rhythms of the Anglican liturgy and a pitman's son who wanted to escape from Nottingham, maybe via sex, or by his crude paintings. Compare them? I looked at him carefully, but he showed no sign of humour so I gave an answer about their use of verse forms, trying to make it sound as though it had been a reasonable question. He nodded a few times and looked relieved. He didn't follow it up.
The big one leafed through my papers again. “Your personal report,”he said at last, “from your teacher...Did you have difficulties with him?”
I hadn't been aware of any, I said.
“Is there anything that you'd like to ask us about life in college? We try to make everyone feel welcome."
It seemed wrong not to ask something; it might look as though I didn't care. But I couldn't ask any of the things I really wanted to know. In the silence we heard the college clock chime the half-hour. I felt them both looking at me. Then I felt a trickle of sweat on my spine. I hardly ever sweat normally, and it gave me an idea.
“What's the thing with laundry?”
“What?" said the big one, gruffly.
“Do you have...Well, like, washing machines? Is it done centrally or do I take it somewhere or what?”
"I'm not quite sure," said the younger one.
“Each undergraduate is assigned a moral tutor,” said the schoolmasterly one. “A Fellow of the college who can help you with all your personal and health questions."
“So he'd be the one to ask?”
"Yes. Yes, I imagine so.”
I thought that now I'd broken the ice, it might be good to ask another question. "What about money?" I said.
“How much money will I need?”
"I imagine your local authority will provide a grant. It's up to you how you spend it. Do you have questions about the work?"
“No. I read the prospectus.”
“Do you find the idea of Chaucer daunting?—
"No, I like Chaucer."
"Yes, yes, I can see that from your paper. Well, Mr. Engle . . . er...”
“Englebury. You can go now, unless...Gerald?"
"Good. So we'll look forward to seeing you next autumn."
I didn't see how they could let me go without telling me how it had gone. "Have I won a prize?" I said.
"We shall be writing to your school in due course. When we've completed the interview process. It's an exceptional year."
I shook his offered hand, waved at the seated one and went out, down the oak stairs. What a pair of frauds.
In the evening I tear a ticket from a book and take it to the college dining hall, which was designed by Robert Adam. You have to buy a book of thirty-five every term; you don’t actually have to use them, but the cash you pay in advance keeps the kitchen going. I’m wearing a long black gown over my jeans and sweater and there are candles in sconces on the painted plaster walls. We stand up when a door behind the top table opens and the Fellows of the college come in to dine. The Master is an oceanographer, who once drew maps of undersea mountain ranges. He knows how Australia was once attached to China or how Ghana sweated in the foothills of the Andes. I think he imagines that New Zealand once broke free from Germany.
The crystal glasses glitter in the candlelight. They drink wine. We drink water, though you are allowed to ask for beer if you like. Stellings is the only man to do this.
“A pint of ale, please, Robinson,” he says to the stooping butler. “Beer for you, Mike?”
I shake my head. Stellings brews his own beer in a plastic barrel. He calls it SG (short for student's gin: drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence) and once forced me to drink it, even though it made me sick, with its powerful taste of malt and raw alcohol, which he achieves by doubling the sugar input recommended on the side of the kit. There is no bathroom near his room, so I had to vomit ...
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