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Top 10 Books with Unreliable Narrators

17th Jul 2018

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Ah, the good old unreliable narrator, trick of too-clever-by-half novelists since the idea of relativism began. But some authors have taken the fun of playing with narrative voice even further – Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is narrated by a foetus, while Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief has Death itself as the first-person point of view.

All too often, the books hitting the headlines for this kind of narrative trick are men – but women, too, are capable of messing with your head, seeing the world from an unusual perspective, and using the narrator’s viewpoint as an essential element of their novel’s power. We’re celebrating ten of the best books with unreliable narrators written by women…

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Maud has dementia. When she finds a note in her pocket, in her own handwriting, saying that her friend Elizabeth is missing, Maud determines to find out what happened to her – and how it might be connected to what happened to her sister, Sukey, who went missing all those years ago.

Healey shows the frustration of losing your memory, through Maud’s uncertainty and how lost she can be. But she also, through Maud’s eyes, shows the reader the impact of dementia on Maud’s friends and family, and you feel for them too.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This is that “book everyone is talking about,” with good reason. Honeyman’s narrator is socially awkward, and traumatised, and some readers suggest she is also on the autism spectrum.

Sometimes you cringe on Eleanor’s behalf for what she doesn’t understand, sometimes you find her infuriating, and yet, seeing the world through her eyes, you come to cheer for her, to want her to succeed.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Jack is five, and has spent his whole life in Room. His mother says it’s the only real part of the world. Then something changes, and she says she has lied to him, they need to leave Room, and he has to be very brave.

Donoghue gave her stamp of approval to the film, but even if you’ve seen it, the book inimitably captures the worldview, the voice, and the understanding of a five-year-old child.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

One of the most famous of the “unreliable narrator” tricks – if you don’t want spoilers, look away now. By making one of her characters speak only through a diary for the first half of the book, Flynn builds a picture of a marriage very different from reality, and at the same time poses intriguing questions about victimhood, being a “cool girl,” and how we present ourselves, and our partners, to the world.

One of the few books where I was literally open-mouthed at the twist, and it all comes about because of the diary narrative device.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

Quite apart from being epic historical fiction, and having male/male sex scenes that make you blush if you’re reading it on the tube, this book’s narrator slowly becomes less and less connected with reality.

You start off trusting him, and then begin to second-guess whether what he’s saying is true, look for clues between the lines, and doubt your own perceptions against what he’s telling you. It’s insanely clever gaslighting, and a magnificent achievement.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Similar to Gone Girl, the narrative trick here is the “diary vs real person” device, but done very differently. It’s late in World War 2, and a female transport pilot has been shot down over occupied France.

She writes her confession for the German officers, while you hear the backstory from her best friend. A fiendishly twisty point of view game, plus a story of female friendship and shooting Nazis – what more do you want?

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

As a teenager, I marveled at how Townsend used Adrian’s voice to show the reader things that Adrian himself didn’t understand. (His father’s mistress shows up, opens her coat, says, “I thought you ought to know,” and Adrian marvels at how fat she’s got for such a thin woman.)

This same trick of the reader knowing more than the narrator is used in several of the books above, but Townsend might be the original “clueless narrator” author, and a fabulous satirist at the same time.

These books are modern classics for a reason – and they’re a useful reminder that we can all be oblivious to what’s going on right under our noses, especially when filled with teenage naivete and self-centredness.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

What makes this narrator unusual is that she’s dead. Susie Salmon was murdered at fourteen and is now telling her story from a heaven that feels like a slick version of an American high school. She looks down on her grieving parents, on the investigation into her death, on her friends.

While critics differ on whether the book is powerfully redemptive or saccharine and sentimental, the unusual narrator is a profound look at how the line between the living and the dead – and what the dead know – can be blurred but never crossed.

Like Mother by Jenny Diski

A quick look through the Goodreads reviews for this reveal words like “bizarre,” “creepy,” and “manipulative,” so if that’s your thing, you’re in for a treat here.

Like Mother is the story of a mother, told by her child – except here, the child is a baby born with a fatal defect, missing most of its brain.

In the end, the narrator says, it’s just another story, not the truth – but that story is about what shapes us, what makes us human, from a most unusual perspective.

The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier

One of the lesser-known novels by the queen of gothic creepiness, The Parasites has three narrators – siblings, growing up in the shadow of bohemian parents. So far, so normal.

But they refer to themselves throughout the novel with the collective “we.” As they navigate the secrets of their collective past, the unusual narrative voice shows a strange and eerie bond.

Know another brilliant unreliable narrator created by a woman writer that should be on our list? Tell us your favourites via Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.