Book Bird Josh recommends his top five reads featuring unreliable narrators. Josh did his PhD on this subject and so is basically an expert on unreliable, untrustworthy, slippery protagonists. Here are his fave novels to keep you guessing right until the end…
To me, unreliable narration hints at a core element of the way we tell stories: everyone has their own version of the truth. Whether we exaggerate or our memories fail us, or perhaps we’ve got secrets we’d like to keep, every story we tell is prone to a little unreliability. Even if you haven’t heard the term ‘unreliable narrator’, you’ve almost certainly encountered a few. A narrator is ‘unreliable’ when you, the reader, have some reason to doubt their version of the story. Some narrators we know are unreliable from the start — how far can we trust the words of a convicted jewel thief, or an eyewitness account from an easily distracted eight-year-old? Other narrators we trust right up until the end when a game-changing twist is revealed. Here are some books that feature narrators who will keep you digging for the truth.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
Iain Reid’s debut novel begins with a thought that ‘sticks’, ‘lingers’, and ‘dominates’: our nameless narrator is thinking of ending things. She and her boyfriend, Jake, are only a few months into their relationship and already things are feeling stale. The two are on a road trip through the middle of nowhere. The narrator is going to meet Jake’s parents for the first time—a strange gesture for someone who wants out of a relationship.
From the beginning, something about the narrator feels a little off. Some of her memories feel more like dreams, and her grip on her sanity (and her self) loosens as the story goes on. As you near the thrilling conclusion, you may lose hope of finding any kind of central, singular meaning; only then does the narrator offer the final piece of the puzzle, and only then does everything make sense.
The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna
Jimmy doesn’t see the world the way other kids do—he sees the network of interconnected pipes and valves, the machines, beneath the skin of every living thing. When his mother coughs, Jimmy sees her air ducts being cleared of dust. When his father drinks, Jimmy sees the valves ease their pressure against his father’s heart. Jimmy sees the pipes that connect his parents, and he believes that his father uses his hands to unblock them in acts that leave Jimmy’s mother with bruises.
Perhaps calling Jimmy ‘unreliable’ is unfair. While he often finds the world overwhelming, he sees more beneath the surface than your average narrator—he sees the hearts of the people around him, the deep-seated emotions embedded beneath their actions. Some of the best unreliable narrators unlock different ways of seeing, and Jimmy does this in spades.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Those who know me well are probably rolling their eyes right about now. Yes, I talk about Fight Club a lot, and yes, it was inevitable that it would worm its way into a list of my favourite unreliable narratives. After a long and mind-bending bout of insomnia, the narrator meets Tyler Durden and together they invent ‘fight club’, a bare-knuckled support group for disaffected middle-class men. The narration here is fractured, sometimes even disorienting. Sometimes we’re hurled from place to place, with the narrator having no idea how he got there. Through its sharp critique of masculinity, capitalism, and consumerist ideals, along with its fragmented narration, Fight Club delivers one of the all-time greatest literary twists.
Memorial by Bryan Washington
When Benson’s boyfriend, Mike, leaves for Japan to visit his dying father, Benson is left at home with Mike’s mother, who, awkwardly, he has never met before. Benson narrates the first section of Memorial, painting a picture of his boyfriend that is callous, uncaring, and emotionally evasive, but just when we think we’ve made our minds up about Mike, the novel switches to his perspective. Washington adeptly inhabits the minds of both men; while their voices are somewhat similar, their subtle differences indicate what brought the two together and what’s pulling them apart. The fact that they spend almost the entire novel on opposite sides of the world feels symbolic of their relationship. You’ll be glad to get both perspectives of this tumultuous and doomed relationship; with just one perspective, the portrait would feel incomplete.
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
During their daily walk in the woods, Vesta Gul and her dog stumble upon an anonymous note that reads: Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body. But with no nearby body, no blood, and no weapon, can we even be sure that a murder actually occurred? So begins a whodunnit of a different kind. Left puzzled by the lack of clues, Vesta imagines entire suspects and events into being. She even imagines an entire life and death for ‘Magda’. It’s clear that Vesta is making it all up as she goes along, but her imagination provides the only clues we have. Like many great unreliable narrators, Vesta blurs the line between reality and illusion, and once you finish the novel, she may even have you running to the internet for answers.