The unreliable narrator. It’s quite the craze these days, and something that absolutely appeals to and fascinates me. We see it in Gillian Flynn’s sensation GONE GIRL, Elizabeth Little’s DEAR DAUGHTER, Paula Hawkins’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, and of course, many, many more titles. He or she may even exist in the pages of my own novels. It’s not something that’s new, either. The unreliable narrator has been around for ages, though the popularity of it seems to be picking up speed these days, and I have to wonder what it is that we find so compelling and entertaining about these characters, whose voices lure us into these tales, hold tightly and don’t let go, not until they’ve had a little fun with us, and made us feel like a fool (though oddly enough, we love them even more for it, somehow, for the deception).
I’ve recently finished reading Holly Brown’s sophomore novel A NECESSARY END, a psychological suspense tale about a husband and wife who are unable to conceive their own child, and decide to adopt an infant from a young, expectant woman with a few aberrant plans of her own. It’s fraught with tension from page one, but also darkly comical; it’s the kind of novel that will have readers screaming at the characters through the pages of the book, and at the end will leave you feeling disemboweled somehow, in the very best of ways. It’s a book with a whole gang of abstruse narrators and characters, none of which we love immensely, and none of whom we should trust. An of course there is an unreliable narrator or two.
The unreliable narrator can be unreliable because they are young, an alcoholic, misinformed, afflicted with mental illness, or sometimes because they’re just trying to outwit the reader, and delude us completely. This is the unreliable narrator that most fascinates me, the one who’s doing it on purpose, who is playing with our thoughts and emotions for fun. I suppose it’s the contradiction of it, the fact that the narrator – the sole person recounting the story for us, the one who is holding our hand as we journey through the tale together – is a liar. Maybe a liar is too harsh a word, sometimes they don’t know what they’re doing, but they are doing it nonetheless. They’re certainly not someone we should trust and leave us at the end feeling hoodwinked – although if you’re anything like me, you’ll love the novel even more for it, for the fact that both the author and the narrator managed to double cross you like that, and leave you feeling partly like a fool, but entirely entertained.
The next time you dive into a novel unsuspectingly, deciding to take that narrator’s words at face value, believing that their pronouncements are true, ask yourself: should I really believe what I’m reading, or is this an example of the unreliable narrator hard at work?
It certainly puts a spin on fiction.
Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica is published by Mira in August