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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A TRULY GREAT NOVEL?

by Margo Fuke

 
I expect that, like me, you've read quite a few interesting and intelligent reviews recently featuring well-known books or authors. Well relax. This certainly isn't intelligent though I hope it's interesting, at least it's shortish! It isn't even about a book – well not a whole book that is. For that, go on line. Most of it has faded from my memory leaving only the awareness of horror in one small part of it. A part dismissed by the reviewers with a comment 'bullied by his father and at school'.
 
Have you guessed yet? The book is Engleby and it's by Sebastian Faulks. I bailed out of most of his books by the end of Chapter I and part of me wishes I had done the same with this one. To put it into context, Engleby, bullied, gets a scholarship to a public school, bullied, and then to Cambridge, where we meet him for the first time. The first-person narrative is filled with tiny detail – irrelevant to the outsider – but isn't that life? I was wondering why Faulks bothered, when the murder comes on stage. That's pretty irrelevant too, just a device for further investigation of Engleby's character, the whodunit being intentionally obvious.
 
There's the key word – character. He's intriguing. You care, and wonder why you care, about him. As you look more carefully, you realise that among this plethora of detail there isn't one single meanful conversation. Who is this alone-in-a-crowd person with a drug habit funded by petty theft?  I wept with him as his father used him as a punchball; I died inside with him as he was singled out at school and I cringed as the bullying escalated to the horrific, worthy of Tom Brown's Schooldays. He, surely, came to see himself as unworthy of better treatment. I ached for his loneliness, of which he was probably only subconsciously aware. I, almost, accepted his solution to the Jennifer-problem as a natural progression.

I told myself that my reaction was merely a tribute to Faulks' brilliant writing, that such bullying could only exist in fiction. Then I went back to my set-aside book, a biography of Lord Mountbatten, who was murdered in his 70s, along with one of his grandchildren and the boatboy while on a family fishing trip. He described an incident from his early naval career. They all slept in hammocks, large cocoon type hammocks, and one 'prank' was to let a hammock down suddenly so the sleeper crashed to the deck - an age old tradition! But wooden decks were now cold, hard steel and one unlucky youth crashed so hard he was paralysed for life. Only then was the custom outlawed!
 
Just the wrong timing for me, this dangerous, pointless, institutionalised bullying stopped me comforting myself with the 'fiction' label.
 
Now I have only to read the bald words ' bullied for some time' in the press to be thrown back into Engleby's world.

Isn't this the mark of a truly great novel? Not just that we 'enjoyed' it. But that we came out of it with some new understanding added to who we are? I certainly think so.

 

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