The gifted British Faulks (Human Traces, 2006, etc.) rings changes on the untrustworthy narrator technique with this titillating, ultimately engrossing study of a loner with a dark past.
Mike Engleby is at Cambridge University in 1973, a student from a poor background on a full scholarship. As he tells us his story, often engagingly (his vignettes of the faculty are razor-sharp), it becomes clear he keeps to himself, whether he’s drinking, doing drugs or driving around country villages. But the name of one fellow student keeps coming up: Jennifer Arkland. He goes to lectures with her and later, as one of the crew, participates in an experimental student film in Ireland; Jennifer has a lead role. However, when he steals a letter she’s written to her parents, he realizes he’s just a footnote in her life, a joke. Mike started stealing at Chatfield, the terrifying private boarding school he attended, also on scholarship; it boosted his “morale,” which needed boosting after incessant vicious bullying by older boys and beatings by his father. What’s really chilling, though, is Mike’s casual admission that in time he became a vicious bully himself. Back in Cambridge, the big news is that Jennifer has disappeared. The police search Mike’s rooms, but fail to discover Jennifer’s diary, Mike’s latest theft. Might Mike have “stolen” Jennifer? Possibly, but it’s a big leap from obsession to abduction, though he’s clearly maladjusted, unlike Jennifer (the marvelous diary entries reveal a radiantly happy, normal young woman). Life goes on, Jennifer is not found and Mike eventually becomes a successful journalist in London. Then the past returns, and it is devastating. If Mike has not been leveling with us, it’s because of involuntary memory loss. We finally learn the gripping truth about what happened in Cambridge, even as we ponder the nature of the self.
Faulks knows exactly how to keep the reader off-balance in this deft, funny, scary combination of suspense and psychic exploration.