12 Books With Unreliable Narrators Because The Truth Is Relative
I like a good twist in my storytelling, if someone isn’t secretly a ghost or is actually the murderer the whole time, I might still love the book, but I probably won’t love it as much. One of the best ways to get a good twist in a novel is by having an unreliable narrator. You know the type, the strange and twisted voice that gives you one set of circumstances and then immediately turns them on their head, much to the horror of (sometimes) the narrator and you, mostly you.
They are the Nick and Amy Dunnes who make us believe that they are one thing, but usually end up being another. These narrators often don’t care about you, or perhaps they care about you too much and want to hide the truth from you. The truth always comes out, doesn’t it? That’s what makes these stories great. However, what is truth exactly? Is the narrator's truth any less truthful than yours?
We all know our Narrators and Tyler Durdens, but there are actually loads of different ways a narrator can be unreliable. To celebrate this, I’ve compiled a list of 12 books with unreliable narrators. Be warned, while enjoyment of most of these books isn’t diminished by knowing that the narrator is unreliable, if you are the kind of person who would feel like they’ve been spoiled by learning that certain books are on this list, go no further. The rest of you can enjoy!
1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood is one of the last surviving members of her family, after a fatal dose of arsenic made its way into family dinner one night, and she is left alone with her uncle Julian and sister Constance. Constance has long since been acquitted of the murder, and Merricat now protects her from the curiosity and cruelty of strangers. They live happily together until their greedy cousin Charles arrives to take over the family fortune.
2. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Set in a dystopian future England where crime takes over at night, 15-year-old Alex is a "droog" who glories in the terrible violence he commits on a nightly basis. When one of his routine home invasions goes awry, he is launched down a rabbit hole that explores the role of free will when it comes to violent crime. Narrated by Alex in a super strange dialect composed of Russian and Shakespearean English, you'll find it hard to trust him, and that's entirely the point.
3. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Patrick Bateman has everything going for him: He's handsome, successful, and well-educated. He also has an insane blood lust that he's unable to control, which leads him to spend his nights committing horrific crimes. When he takes thing a step too far, it seems as though he may finally be caught. Not only a bone-chilling thriller, but also an incredibly interesting study of the yuppie lifestyle (as though it needed one!), American Psycho is written with an ambiguity that will leave you constantly wondering what is real.
4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Growing up, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were all children at an exclusive boarding school where they were constantly reminded of how special they were. Years later, Kathy is a young woman living on her own, when Ruth and Tommy re-enter her life and bring her back to the days of their youth. For the first time, Kathy considers what brought them all together, and what it truly meant to be at that school to begin with. Those who have heard about this book (or have seen the movie) already know the twist, but reading the unreliable narration truly drives the point home.
5. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
82-year-old Maud is slowly losing her memory, but she hasn't forgotten her best friend Elizabeth, especially when Elizabeth goes missing. Unfortunately, no one seems to take her concerns seriously, and the panic over her missing friend brings back the memories of someone else who once went missing: her sister Sukey disappeared shortly after WWII. Told from her point of view, Elizabeth is Missing is more than a mystery, it's also a very real portrait of dementia.
6. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is narrated by Rosemary Cooke, a former chatterbox who now surrounds herself in silence due to a terrible incident that happened in her past. The Cooke family was once very normal, and now her brother is a fugitive due to domestic terrorism charges, her father has become distant and brooding, and her mother is a shell of her former self. To make matters worse, Rosemary's beloved little sister Fern is facing a fate far beyond anyone else's imagination. This is one of those books that's better read knowing as little about the plot as possible, so I'll leave you with that information and little else.
7. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
Set in the twisted world of ballet dancers, The Walls Around Us centers on 18-year-old Violet, a ballet dancer who is about to have all of her dreams come true, and Amber, a girl locked away in the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center for a crime that she may or may not have committed. Both girls are connected by Orianna, a girl also locked away for the brutal murder of two girls. Mixing mystery and supernatural elements, this book is ridden with lyrical prose and will keep you guessing the truth right up until the very end.
8. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Blind Assassin begins with our narrator, Iris, telling the story of the day her sister Laura drove off a bridge. From that moment we are set on a strange and engrossing journey in order to find the true reason why she did it in the first place. Stories are layered on each other in this complicated book that focuses on loss, love, and the tragedy of old age.
9. The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan
In this fractured fairy tale we are introduced to our narrator, India Morgan Phelps, a girl recently diagnosed with schizophrenia and happens to be distantly related to H.P. Lovecraft. One night while driving, India discovers a mysterious woman named Eva on the side of the road. Is Eva a mermaid? If she a siren? Is she a wolf? Is she anything? This and many other questions are asked during the course of this book, the biggest question asked is "what is real?" That's something you're going to have to read to find out.
10. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
It's the year 1888, and young painter Harriet Baxter has arrived in Glasgow in order to show her art at the International Exhibition. She quickly befriends the Gillespie family and becomes a fixture in their life. Unfortunately, a series of unfortunate events begin to befall the Gillespie family, ending in a shocking climax the will change the fabric of the family forever. This book must be read to get the full effect for the story, but if you're a fan of Victoriana with a dash of unreliable narration, this is the book for you.
11. The Collector by John Fowles
When a extremely odd and lonely butterfly collector Frederick first lays eyes on art student Miranda, it's love at first sight. Unable to win her heart, he decides to kidnap her and keep her in his house in the hopes that one day she will fall in love with him. Told from both Frederick and Miranda's point of view, it quickly becomes apparently that things aren't exactly as they seem. Arguably one of the most psychologically disturbing books written in the 20th century, this book will chill and devastate you for all the right (and wrong) reasons.
12. The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
Widowed Ruth lives a solitary life in a beach house outside of Sydney, Australia, often dreamily remembering her earlier life on the island of Fiji, the happiest time of her life. One day, a strange woman named Frida arrives, claiming to be a care worker sent by the government, and Ruth lets her into the house. Soon Ruth is troubled by the sounds of a tiger in the night, and she can't seem to shake the feeling that Frida may be from her past. Is Ruth able to trust Frida? Is she able to trust herself?
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