A breathless press release for Sebastian Faulks's latest novel claims that it is "unlike anything he has written before". To some degree, this is accurate. A jet-black study of obsession and psychosis, Engleby bears little relation to Faulks's signature sweeping romantic epics.
Faulks's previous book, however, was not a generation-spanning examination of lost love and betrayal, but the witty squib Pistache, a collection of pastiches of his eminent colleagues. Although slightly reminiscent of the strict English teacher letting his hair down at the end-of-year class party, it was a welcome departure for an author often seen traversing the tricky line between the Booker and the Bad Sex Award.
In Engleby, some of this risk-taking verve has endured. The novel begins in the non- descript Cambridge rooms of the apparently unremarkable Mike Engleby, a young scholarship boy from a poor family. Engleby is not an especially articulate or likeable narrator; he describes a solitary and mundane college life without a great deal of interest, sketching a dance here, a play there. There is mention of a nice middle-class girl, Jen Arkham, whom Engleby appears to have a crush on; his feelings do not seem to be reciprocated. He drinks to excess in seedy pubs, pops pills and commits acts of casual theft. He has one friend, Stellings, who has bestowed the semi-mocking, semi-affectionate nickname "Groucho" upon him, on account of Engleby's reluctance to be at all clubbable.
But there is a back story. Engleby won a scholarship to a minor naval public school, Chatfield, where he was hideously bullied (despite being strong and active enough to play in the rugby first XV) and given the nickname "Toilet". This is recounted in the unemotional tones of someone who is either repressed or sociopathic. As Engleby's obsession with Jen grows, the latter explanation seems more plausible - especially when she mysteriously disappears.
Faulks has tremendous fun with the novel's 40-year sweep. In the 1980s, an increasingly strung-out Engleby accidentally becomes a successful journalist, first under the nom de plume "Michèle Watts", and then under the semi-assumed identity of "Michael Watson". Faulks guys a pompously self-obsessed Ken Livingstone and Jeffrey Archer, portrayed as a dreadful bore who, when Engleby interviews him, is heard "yapping like a terrier . . . he told me things he must have known weren't true and other things he must have known that I would know weren't true". Engleby notes, with authorial tongue presumably firmly in cheek, "Although he appears to be off his trolley, he's apparently very highly regarded in the Conservative Party. They keep offering him important positions."
Yet Faulks's greatest success is his protagonist. At first, Engleby seems an unlikely and unsympathetic subject, lacking the charisma or wit of a great fictional anti-hero. However, as the novel develops, Faulks gradually humanises Engleby through small details, such as his almost totemic affection for 1970s rock music (parts of the book function extremely well as guides to early Elton John records) and his sincere affection for his younger sister, the charmingly innocent Julie.
The period detail is impeccable - 1970s Cambridge has seldom seemed so bleak and chilly - and, perhaps as a wry acknowledgement of the ever-present spectre of the Bad Sex Awards, the only love scene is described in the hilariously banal line: "Afterwards we walked to the Ritz, hired a room and had it off." The revelations that come at the close of the book are predictable, but the figure of Engleby, initially so unappealing, eventually comes to seem both terrifying and pathetic, the ultimate embodiment of a figure casually rejected by society, whose revenge is as tragic as it is horrific.