Heading – finally – into the last ten entries with
A book with an unreliable narrator
I do love me an unreliable narrator since reading Poe. Oh The Tell-Tale Heart! You know you’ve made it when your novel is restaged by The Simpsons! I love that shifting uncertainty of these narrators: how are they misleading us overtly, how much are they themselves compromised in their perception of the world.
Let’s compose a list in no particular order of unreliable narrators
- Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine reveals the unreliability in that title: no narrator who insists they are “perfectly fine” are likely to be in any way fine! Her vulnerability, her delusions – at least some of them – are clear enough to the reader but she is painfully oblivious to them.
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk has one – or two – of the most unreliable narrators in fiction. And Tyler Durden will always in my mind look like Brad Pitt at his most charismatic.
- The Life of Pi by Yann Martel which was a beautifully written and crafted adventure tale of survival on the unforgiving ocean of a young boy adrift in a lifeboat with only a vicious tiger for company. As a twist at the end, the narrator raises huge questions over how reliable the narrative had been. Had it been too crafted? Had the struggle for survival been more brutal and more tragic than it already is?
- Atonement by Ian McEwan, is written in the third person but, like The Life of Pi, pulls the carpet out from the reader in its final chapters when it reveals that Briony Tallis, the child who doesn’t understand the sexual tryst between her sister, Cecelia and Robbie Turner and set into place an horrific misunderstanding and consequences, is ultimately the narrator.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov presents us with the most unpleasant of characters: the adult infatuated with and desiring a child, who eventually consummates his desire. Humbert Humbert is a perverse fantastic disturbing creation and his language in the book is both beautiful and deeply deeply disturbing. Especially the moment where he claims that Lolita herself seduced him in the end…. As a father I am not sure I could re-read it; as a reader, I cannot deny the power of the language. Look at the opening lines which are appallingly intimate and disturbing.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
- Everything Under by Daisy Johnson is a beautiful novel with a powerful control over language and structure and some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve read. It purports to be an account of a daughter reunited with her mother, yet it is also a reimagining of the Oedipus myth, and a powerful evocation of place as Gretel recounts to her mother how she searched for and found her. I was never fully convinced that the mother, Sarah, had ever been found, that she was a ghost perhaps, or had been conjured up by Gretel’s almost visceral need for her.
- Room by Emma Donoghue is unreliable because our narrator is a five year old boy, Jack. He is somewhat precocious but, still, he is five and has been sheltered from some of the horrors of his predicament, his mother having been kidnapped and habitually raped by her kidnapper. He had been born into the locked room in which she was confined so his understanding of the world outside was as unreliable as his understanding of the horrors of what was inside.
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon has as its narrator Christopher Boone, a neurologically atypical young boy struggling to make sense of his world, especially his parents’s relationship. Most commentators describe Boone as autistic but, if memory serves, it is not a term used in the book. In any event, his atypicality makes him a vulnerable and incredibly moving narrator, albeit an unreliable one.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky is similar to both Curious Incident and Room in that the narrator is honest to the limits of his own understanding but that his understanding is limited. Charlie is socially awkward throughout and we slowly come to realise that there are deep seated traumas in his past which have contributed to that.
- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler is a case where the narrator, Rosemary, is reliable in that she is in full possession of the facts about her family but deliberately chooses to withhold those facts until half way through, causing the reader to re-evaluate so much! It is hard to summarise or to review without giving too much away but it is at its heart the story of a family which falls apart when Rosemary’s sister is lost.
Oh there are so many more. I fear I may be the only person on the planet who has not read Paula Hawkins’ Girl on the Train but I am led to believe by a work colleague – who somewhat dismissively declaimed that she only read this “popular” book because she had been given it as a gift before admitting that it was very sharply structured – that it is another for this list. But, ten seems enough!