Top Five Saturday: Unreliable Narrators

Top Five Saturday is a meme hosted by Devouring Books to discover and share books that all have a common theme. The list of themes currently runs at

Ooooo I love me an unreliable narrator! The moment when we realise that that faith we put in a character to take us by the hand, to lead us through their world, their story, just might have been misplaced.

Liars – simple straight-up liars – as narrators can become tedious though and, being blunt, simply annoying. My taste runs to prefer those narrators who are mistaken. Those who are honest and genuine and who believe themselves but, for some reason are ignorant of their own errors: the child narrator, the innocent and naive, the delusional and fantasist.

The List

The Tell Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe

So the classic teacher example – the exemplar, the model – for all unreliable narrators has to be Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart. I don’t terribly want to if I am honest, but I can’t not.

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Such a robust and desperate defense of your sanity can only indicate your madness! This is the classic tale of our narrator who murders an old man because of his filmy pale vulture eye and buries him beneath the floorboards, only to be haunted by his dead heart’s continued beating.

It is such a classic that The Simpsons have parodied it!

Room, Emma Donoghue

In Room, our narrator is Jack, a somewhat precocious five year old child, the product of the abusive relationship between his mother and the man who had abducted her and kept her prisoner years previously. Echoes of real life horrors such as Josef Fritzl’s imprisonment of his daughter abound, but Jack’s innocent, optimistic voice was a delight and pleasure but it made the half understood events even more unsettling and disturbing.

“Outside has everything. Whenever I think of a thing now like skis or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos, I have to remember they’re real, they’re actually happening in Outside all together. It makes my head tired. And people too, firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they’re all really in Outside. I’m not there, though, me and Ma, we’re the only ones not there. Are we still real?”

NutShell, Ian McEwan

“When love dies and marriage lies in ruins, the first casualty is honest memory, decent, impartial recall of the past. Too inconvenient, too damning of the present. It’s the spectre of old happiness at the feast of failure and desolation. So, against that headwind of forgetfulness I want to place my little candle of truth and see how far it throws its light.”

There had to be some McEwan in this list and I was tempted to go for Briony Tallis’ narration – albeit apparently third person in the vast majority of the novel – in Atonement as a meditation on explicitly the power of narrative to lie, to deceive, to offer a form of atonement and happiness because of its deception. However, I thought I’d visit the extraordinary narrator – a reimagined Hamlet – who recounts his mother’s infidelity and the breakdown of her marriage, who savours wines and food, who loves Radio 4 podcasts. From within the womb that carries him.

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel

Mr. Piscine Molitor Patel, Indian citizen, is an astounding story of courage and endurance in the face of extraordinarily difficult and tragic circumstances. In the experience of this investigator, his story is unparalleled in the history of shipwrecks. Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.

A little like Atonement, the narrator of Life of Pi presents himself as fairly reliable: settled into a framing narrative he recounts his extraordinary experiences following the wrecking of the ship on which his family’s zoo was being transported and his survival on a life boat with Richard Parker, the aforementioned Bengal tiger, encountering a series of extraordinary episodes: “Carnivorous trees? A fish-eating algae that produces fresh water? Tree-dwelling aquatic rodents? These things don’t exist.”And the final chapter, as with Atonement, pulls the rug away and offer the reader other interpretations, re-casting the previous novel as parable. Perhaps. Perhaps our interpretation is simply a matter of choice

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

“My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Healthcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

I do adore Wuthering Heights, so let’s return to it because it is so much more effective and subtle and complex in its narration and narrators than many of the others on the list! The story of the violent, destructive love is never told from their points of view but, primarily, through the servant Nelly Dean and related then to the reader through the somewhat prosaic and out-of-place-on-the-moors character of Lockwood – alongside various other narrative formats. Subjective, incomplete and shifting, the narrative is wonderfully compelling.

There are so many others I could mention: Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Kazuo Ishiguro, Patrick Rothfuss, J. D. Salinger, Donna Tartt, Ali Smith, Mark Haddon…


Alyssa @ A Lovely Book Affair

Jill @ Jill’s Book Blog

Chloe @ Chloe’s Book Blog

The Bibliophagist

GripLitGrl’s Book Review Nook

5 thoughts on “Top Five Saturday: Unreliable Narrators”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.