Reading is the ultimate voyeur activity. You have the opportunity to crawl inside someone’s head and understand their motivations. Reading allows you to try out, even for just a few hundred pages, what it might be like to battle in the Hunger Games, to be a spy, a grieving mother, or even to be an immortal vampire. But what if the book has an unreliable narrator? What if you can't trust the narrator to give you an accurate picture of events?
From Gone Girl to Pretty Baby to We Were Liars — the unreliable narrator is more popular than ever. There’s something fascinating about being inside someone’s point of view yet remaining uncertain if we can trust them. As readers, it lets us “Nancy Drew” the situation, looking for clues to the real story. We filter details and weigh their importance — ultimately deciding what is true or not.
For my novel, With Malice , I wanted to take the unreliable narrator another step. What if the narrator herself didn’t even know if she were telling the truth? My work with people who’ve sustained brain injuries provided inspiration for the main character, Jill. Brain injury impacts everyone differently. It depends not only on the severity of the injury, but also the location in the brain where it occurred. People develop limitations in areas such as concentration, word finding, and emotional control. They have to develop new strategies to navigate relationships, school, or work. One of the most common challenges with brain injury is memory loss. Memories define us. They tell us where we’ve come from and help us decide based on experience, where we want to go next. When my character Jill wakes up in a hospital, she has no memory of the accident or the six weeks that precede it. She has to figure out what happened in that missing time and more importantly, come to terms with what she might be capable of doing.
Memory is tricky. It requires a coordinated effort by different parts of your brain to pull up emotional and sensory details and piece them together to make a cohesive story. When you ride your bike to the park a section your brain is pulling up muscle memory to remember how to keep your balance, another portion of your brain is providing details on how to get to the park, and yet another part is recalling your past experience- and reminding you to avoid the house on the corner that has a mean dog that has chased you before. With all those moving parts it’s easy for information to get lost, or confused.
Even in healthy brains there is room for error.
Even in healthy brains there is room for error. Scientific research has shown that memories can be altered (and even false memories inserted) in someone’s mind. One of my more vivid childhood memories is crying hysterically when I realized that our Christmas tree hadn’t returned to the forest after the holidays and instead had met its fate with a wood-chipper. However, this is also a popular family story, and I’m not sure if I actually remember this moment, or if the story has been told to me so often that it only feels like a memory.
What I hoped to accomplish in my book was to create a character desperate to remember the missing time in order to make sense of what has happened. She has to sift through what other people say occurred and decide what fits with what she knows about herself, versus what they might be saying for their own purposes.
Narrators are often unreliable because they can’t (or won’t) admit their real motivations to others, or in some cases, even to themselves. They want to control the story so they can manipulate how they’re seen.
Narrators are often unreliable because they can’t (or won’t) admit their real motivations to others, or in some cases, even to themselves. They want to control the story so they can manipulate how they’re seen. With a brain injury, an individual may not even know what motivated them and feel that they’ve lost the ability to see themselves in a clear light — let alone try and sway how others view them.
As a writer, I was fascinated with the idea of a character having to come to terms with the idea that they can’t even trust themselves. It allows us as a reader to join them in a very uncomfortable place where you are trying to solve the mystery of what happened — even if it means accepting some possibly very unpleasant truths about yourself. It leaves you wondering: Do you even want to remember? And who can you trust?
With Malice is out June 7 from HMH Books For Young Readers.