Sinister campus days

 

FictionIn his recent novel, Human Traces, Sebastian Faulks presented a story of two 19th-century psychiatrists seeking to interpret the human element of madness, an idea that serves as an apt precursor to this, his eighth novel, where he delves even deeper into a study of the mind in an ambitious story that fools the reader time and again with its clever plotting, unexpected twists and captivating narrative voice.

The novel opens rather joyfully, with the youthful narrator Mike Engleby at university in 1970s Cambridge. His early activities - throwing up in watering cans, for example, taking drugs - offer echoes of Paul Pennyfeather and Charles Ryder, suggesting to the reader that that most archaic of creatures, the campus novel, has returned to raise its grizzly head. Engleby quickly falls under the spell of a fellow student, Jennifer, who, despite moving in his immediate circle, seems scarcely aware of his existence. For Engleby, however, sitting two places away from her on an evening out constitutes something of a romantic triumph, lending the comedy a certain air of trepidation; the inclusion of a student art film, featuring a scene in which Jennifer is raped, adds to a growing sense of unease.

BUILDING A MOTIVATION behind the voice, Faulks returns to Engleby's schooldays; the bullying scenes avoid cliche and end in a sinister fashion. There are echoes of Jonathan Coe here, as Faulks displays as adept a touch for recreating the recent past and describing the agonies of a shy adolescence as that most inventive of novelists. By now it has become clear that something unpleasant is going to happen in the "present", and when it does, the question of whether Engleby is responsible for the crime or not is left to the reader to decipher.

Much of the quality of the novel lies in Faulks's ability to allow Engleby to present himself to the reader through his own words, allowing us to judge him as we will. One feels sympathy for him at times. And then contempt. He's arrogant, but his savant-like intelligence justifies it. He's a recluse, a geek, a victim and a bully. Just when you think well of him, he disappoints.

But even when he is coming across at his most contemptible - refusing to acknowledge that Jennifer's boyfriend is in fact her boyfriend - his pathetic nature attracts the reader's sympathy rather than condemnation.

We get to know Jennifer mostly through her diary entries and she comes across as bright and vivacious, excited about the future and her own adult potential. Everything, in other words, that Engleby himself is not. "Sometimes in my cramped room am so excited when I turn the light out by prospect of coming days and weeks that I can't sleep . . . can't help being happy," she tells us, adding an utterly tragic element to her character, a voice ringing out cheerfully in opposition to Engleby's cynicism.

FAULKS DRAWS ON his own past to create some of the more comic moments in the novel. Student politics are seen as terribly serious ("Jack Straw clearly thinks he will inevitably become PM or Foreign Sec one day") and later portions of the novel, when Engleby drifts into journalism, allow the author to have fun as his narrator interviews some of the key figures of the day; Ken Livingstone comes across as guarded, Margaret Thatcher as unflappable and - best of all - Jeffrey Archer as hilariously bonkers.

Of course, Faulks himself spent many years as literary editor of the London Independent (where Engleby messes up a job interview), and he gets good mileage out of this too, populating witty scenes with half-mad editors, drunken reporters and thieving printers. The reader inevitably wants a lot more of the easy laughter that comes with these moments, but Faulks wisely denies us our pleasures and soon, matters regarding the events of Engleby's student days are reintroduced and answers are provided.

Faulks delays our gratification in explaining exactly what happened on the night in question, using the conceit of Engleby's memory lapses to prevent our discovery, and it's the one point where the novel fails to convince. Of course, it's simply a device that allows him to keep the suspense alive and is neatly explained by doctors later in the story, but nevertheless it feels a little artificial and novelistic.

However, this is a small point of detraction, as Faulks skilfully steers the novel from campus farce to mystery story to witty satire before landing finally as a psychological drama, posing many questions about the nature of good and evil for the reader to consider.

Engleby himself is a triumphant character, whose voice lingers long after the book has been set down. It's an original and inventive piece of work, surprisingly dark at times, but with such lightness of touch and wit that the reader is entirely swept along with it. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

John Boyne's bestselling novel The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas is currently being filmed in Budapest for release at the end of 2007.

It won the 2007 Children's Books Ireland/ Bisto Book of the Year award in Dublin this week