I can’t remember the first book I encountered with an unreliable narrator, but I can certainly pinpoint the book the really tipped the scales and made me realize just how fun a book can be with a narrator that you just can’t seem to trust. Sometimes, the narrators are the bad guys with the story being told from their skewed, self-serving perspective. Other narrators have some sort of condition like a mental health issue or being under the influence. I truly didn’t realize how many unreliable narrators filled out my bookshelf and past reading experiences. Doing research for five recommendations really put that into perspective, but it also made choosing that much harder. There are classics like Turn of the Screw by Henry James and pop culture favorites like Fight Club by Chuck Palahnuik and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; however, I didn’t want to go with the obvious choices because where’s the fun in that.
The main appeal to me is the puzzle an unreliable narrator presents. Are the events really happening like the narrator tells us they are? Can we trust their recollection? Are they coloring the way we view other characters in the book? When one individual is acting as your window into this fictional world, the reader’s perception is at the mercy of the narrator, and I happen to find that fascinating.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
First, I want to give a big shout out to Pete Kunze who led a “Bad Romance” literature class during my undergrad. I don’t know if I would have picked this book up if it hadn’t been assigned. This was the book that gave me my realization on unreliable narrators and I’ll never forget the polarizing opinions and heated debates the class had about this book. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that Humbert Humbert is a deplorable individual, but watching him rationalize and explain his actions is like watching a train crash in action. It’s awful and uncomfortable, but you just have to keep your eyes glued to it. During some scenes, somehow, Humbert can actually evoke feelings of sympathy and then you need to take a shower to wash your discomfort off.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Disclaimer: This story will ruin your life. In the book, the point of view switches and, at times, you aren’t sure who is speaking. But watch out for Briony. That’s all I’m going to say. In general, Briony means well in what she says and does, but it’s nearly impossible to not get wrapped up in the story. I was fully buying what she was selling, wholeheartedly. And then things come crashing down and the next thing you know, you’re ugly crying and re-reading the last fifty pages.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
The main character and narrator is Christopher, and he’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. His unreliability comes from the fact that he grasps certain interactions or interprets exchanges differently than most people. However, he’s not purposefully misleading the reading. The Guardian called Christopher more of an “inadequate narrator” than an unreliable one, but I loved this book and I mentioned it before in a post on recommended reading for school curriculum. Inadequate or unreliable, whichever label you prefer, this book should be read either way. It’s genuine and touching and I appreciate Haddon putting a character like Christopher at the forefront of the book.
John Dies at the End by David Wong
Dark humor with a bit of horror throw in- I love this book. And no, I will not tell you whether or not John dies at the end. The book’s main characters get wrapped up in a crazy alien plot that includes a “drug” called soy sauce. I put quotes around drug because it’s injected like a drug but…it’s sentient. For most of the book, the narrator is under the influence of soy sauce, which causes all sorts of weird side effects. There are several moments where the reader doesn’t know if what is happening is real or is just because of the sauce. It’s definitely less serious than the previously mentioned books, but it’s so much fun.
True Confections by Katharine Weber
This was actually a suggestion by Rioter Derek, who emphatically told me to “READ IT!” He says it has one of his favorite unreliable narrators ever. The book also involves candy, which tends to be a plus for me in any situation. Alice seems like a great character and of the reviews I started reading of the book (after Derek’s enthusiastic recommendation), most people liked the main character so much and found her to be hilarious to the point where they didn’t care if she was unreliable. All I know is that this book is creeping up to the top of my to-read pile.
So those are my favorites! Now tell me yours!
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