Engleby – S. Faulks – Reflections

My tutor suggested I read Engleby because “it is a good example of a novel where the prose is rich and descriptive and yet the plot moves along swiftly enough to keep the reader engaged”. He suggested in my Assignment 2 feedback that it also “combines a haunting quality, which you show a talent for, with an emerging plot.”

Engleby is a story of a working class man who receives a scholarship to go to Cambridge College. While there a woman student goes missing. It is a character sketch of a damaged man. With many detours we get to know Engleby: he describes who he likes (in settings); what he likes to do (by showing him doing them); and how smart he is (in school).

It is written in first person which allows us to get intimate with Engleby. However, because the only input we have is from him, it is difficult to know what is true and what he fabricates.

The first dialogue he has is with tutors in the college at his interview shows us his character. He is comfortable with questions regarding academia, but when it comes to regular discussions, he seems uncomfortable. When asked if he had any questions, he become so anxious he sweats and asks them about laundry facilities. Page 4.

Most of the story is internal monologue. This can become a little boring at times. Dialogue helps to break up a story as well as move the story along.

From the first page we are introduced to the main part of the story: Jennifer Auckland the girl who goes missing. Page 1. About a fifth of the way through the story she disappears. Page 86.

When describing settings he was at times very simple building layer upon layer. For example he describes a Turkish bus station thus: “There were sodium lights over the grimy tarmac and the glass-sided shelter. There was that wailing Muslim music turned up louder than the cheap speakers wanted, so their tinny shuddering was added to the vibrato of the singer.” Page 38.

But then he describes something quite poetically; so much so that it is unclear exactly what he means, but you get the feeling from his words. For example, “Whoosh goes the chestnut-amber tide up the side of the straight glass as I tear the cellophane from a silver packet of Sobranie Virginia.” Page 92.

It surprised me how often Faulkes started paragraphs with “I.” I did not think this was acceptable but obviously it is. I also noticed that Faulkes wrote many paragraphs with sentences that start with the same word. This has helped me to realize that story telling does not have to be so laborious.

Faulks brings in a creepy element by having Engleby doing unsociable things. For example, he steals a letter of Jennifer’s ( page 39) and turns up in Ireland at a film society event that Jennifer attends without being a member of the society or invited (page 26).

Some lists do not have “and” before the first item, for example “cheap post-war pebbledash, Mock Tudor with leaded lights, white washed villa.” Page 123. Stephen King mentioned this in his book “On Writing.” He says “It’s not really a good sentence technically speaking… there should be a conjunction (and)… but it’s a good one in terms of the entire passage. Its brevity and telegraphic style vary the pace and keep the writing fresh… A series of grammatically proper sentences can stiffen that line, make it less pliable.” King page 150-151.

PoV – First to Third Person

As another exercise in PoV, I changed a description of myself from first person to third person. Here are both examples. I laughed as I read the third person again (I wrote this a few weeks ago).

First person

You could pinch my cheeks they are so corpulent and high. My eyes are almond shaped but rounder than an Asian beauty. Brown hair and eyes sit in harmonious conflict with my olive, creamy skin. My chin is so prominent it could have been on the front page of the news. While my nose – oh that nose is such a cute button – the kind you get on a baby’s layette. Amid all this splendour is a slight stoop in my shoulders. You know how eagles scour for prey and their head and shoulders are pushed forward. Like that. As if I am continuously carrying a heavy load.

Third Person

Gazing at her in awe, it was as if he had never witness beauty in human form. He could have pinched those corpulent cheeks. Her coffee eyes were almond-shaped but rounder than an Asian beauty. They rested in harmony with her russet hair and olive, creamy skin. Her chin was so prominent; it could have been on the front page of the news. While her nose – oh that nose was a cute button – the kind you get on a baby’s layette. Amid all this splendour was her only flaw: a slight stoop in her shoulders, which made him think of an eagle scouring for prey with her head and shoulders pushed forward. As if she was carrying a heavy load.

PoV – First Person

As an exercise, I changed my piece for Assignment 2 into the first person. Here are the results:

As I walked up, I counted the hard, stone stairs: thirteen. The rail was cold beneath my grip. I wondered if there were also thirteen iron rods supporting the banister. The walls glistened with yellow stains. The fading moonlight picked out the panelling on the front door as I reached the landing.

Feeling the need to delay my entry, I meditated on the yard below. It was disappearing into a mounting fog. The swirling mist was distracting. It twirled between the sheds and the outside toilet. Sighing, I turned towards home.

The hefty, brass doorknocker sneered down at me. Putting the key in the lock, I pushed open the heavy door. The flat was dark. The floorboards creaked under my boots as I made my way down the hallway. The sitting room was at the end of the hall.

Rotting dampness filled my nostrils as I entered the room. It was hard trying to keep the flat warm with the money I made at the hospital. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. I groped my way to the fireplace where a matchbox was propped up on the mantel. When I lit the gaslight on the wall, it flickered and popped. The darkness skulked back towards the edges of the room.

When the children were with Bill’s mum, I followed a routine that helped my mood. Our old sofa was always a good place to set down my hat and coat. We had an affinity as its shoulders drooped like mine. Now the gaslight had banished the dark to the corners, it was time to shut out the world. The window by the sofa was draped in lavender curtains. My mother had made these before she died. They had become frayed at the edges, but were a gentle reminder of her. The wind had picked up outside. The ancient plane tree was jostling with the breezes; its branch tapped an unknown code on the pane.

Beneath the window sat Johnny’s chest of toys. Tin soldiers fought with model planes, which rested among wooden alphabet bricks: some letters spelled “dad”. As I picked up one of the tin soldiers, I saw that its limbs were missing. A scar cleaved diagonally across its face. Why had my son tortured his warriors?

The bedroom led off the sitting room. Since he had been gone, I did not go in there alone. It was cold in there. Draughts twisted through the chimney soot in there. Light only seemed to enter the bedroom when the children did.

Tea – that’s what I needed. The kitchen was back down the hallway. Like my humour, the moonlight threw jagged shadows onto the grey walls. A stove and copper flanked one side of the scullery and a deep sink rested under the window. I walked across the old rug towards the basin. Filling the iron kettle, I placed it on the hob.

Stepping out onto the landing, I lit a cigarette. The sweet smoke carried memories. I leant against the railing. The wind’s fingers crept around my neck. It pulled thin strands of hair across my face.

Carrying my tea back to the sitting room, I stopped. The bedroom door was open. My heart started to pound hard. That door had been closed earlier. Hadn’t it? Was he back? Feeling panicked, I crept towards the door. It was black inside the room. “Bill?” I half expected his face to come out of the gloom towards me. Nothing. Not being able to stay there any longer, I drew back quickly and shut the door. My breathing was shallow. I wiped my moist hands on my skirt.

As if in sympathy with my current dilemma, the sofa groaned as I sat down. Sitting sideways, I could keep an eye on the bedroom door. I unlaced my brown boots and pulled them off. Instantaneously, my feet tingled and it reminded me of him. He had often massaged my feet. “The prettiest toes in London.” He had said. I looked through the dim light to the beige, ceramic tiles that curved around the fire grate. Upon the mantle was that photo of us. Those had been happier times.

I had lent on his reassuringly big shoulder and looked into the camera. My dark eyes had been buried under a burgundy hat. My long, oval face came to a point at my nose, which made my chin look tiny. A saggy jacket covered my floral dress. I had pursed my lips.

“Smile,” said the photographer. I had tried but plump cheeks halted the attempt.

“Come on lass, smile,” he repeated. Bill looked up at me with those sweet soft eyes and tweaked my chin.

“She is smiling – go on, take the picture,” he replied. My heart melted

Pulling on my slippers, I sighed and leaned back in the sofa. Would he come back? Would he ever come back? That’s when the tears weld up and flowed down. Using the back of my hand, I roughly wiped them away. He did not deserve my tears. He needed to come back. Suddenly, there was a tap at the door. Or was it the window? Had the branch tapped on the pane? I stared at the bedroom door. The tapping came again. I looked to the window. The curtains moved. A draught encircled my ankles. Those hairs on the back of my neck rose.

A sudden clap of thunder made me jump up from the sofa. “Jesus Christ!” I shouted. My hand flew to my throat and almost involuntarily I took a step back towards the fireplace. Steeling myself against the table, I looked at the offending door. The gaslights crackled and hissed. My breath slowed. I can’t live here alone. I can’t live here without him. His presence lives here. Until he comes back, I have to go.

The rain poured hard that night. And me? I sat at the table and watched that bedroom door.