Will truth out? … Judi Dench as Barbara in the film of Notes on a Scandal.
The unreliable narrator is an odd concept. The way I see it, we’re allunreliable narrators of our lives who usually have absolute trust in our self-told stories. Any truth is, after all, just a matter of perspective. The only rule I have in how I let characters tell stories is that they must always tell the reader their version of the truth. No one likes being outright lied to, even in fiction. I don’t mind a narrator who’s self-deceiving, but the clues for their truth have to be there for the reader to see.
My novel Behind Her Eyes is, on the surface, the story of the three people in a love affair. An affair combined with a marriage built on secrets – which there must be in a thriller – is perfect for creating unreliable narrators. After all, it’s in the situations when we’re acting at our most shameful – cheating on a partner, sleeping with someone else’s partner, or secretly fighting to keep a spouse, that our versions of the truth are the most tenuous. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I was going to end it. And that’s a fun pit to play in for a writer. Fertile ground, because let’s face it, good people make for really dull stories.
There are, of course, different types of unreliable narrators; those who are fooling themselves, those who are fooling others, and a range in between. Here are a few of the ones that stand out for me.
1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The fabulously unpleasant tale of Amy and Nick’s marital problems breathed new life into the psychological thriller. The twist wasn’t what I loved most about this book – it was the slow reveals in the first section from Nick about himself, that turned him from immediate protagonist to somewhat tarnished hero.
2. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Unreliable narrators go hand in hand with plot twists and never so much as here. When the unnamed, insomniac narrator meets the enigmatic Tyler Durden, the two men start an underground boxing club for men who feel they want to be defined by more than their jobs and pay grades. This becomes Project Mayhem, an army with the aim of bringing the whole system down. A punch of a twist – excuse the pun – reveals both characters to be completely unreliable.
3. The Three by Sarah Lotz
This dark story of four plane crashes and the three children who survive plays with unreliable narration in quite a different way, as diary entries, extracts of a book, news reports and psychiatric reports make up the puzzle pieces of the plot. After seeing events and actions from one character’s viewpoint and believing them, Lotz then presents you with another character’s version of the same events. Who you can trust, if anyone, is hard to know.
4. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Teenager Frank Cauldhame has no National Insurance number, no birth certificate and has been told by his overprotective father to lie should anyone ask who he is. Living on a remote island off Scotland, Frank tells the reader bluntly he had murdered three people by the time he was 10. With an older brother just escaped from a psychiatric institution and a father who keeps his secrets locked away, The Wasp Factory is a darkly disturbing study of a hugely dysfunctional – and unreliable – family.
5.Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
In the second Mrs de Winter we have a narrator who is unreliable through no fault of her own because she misunderstands everything about the eerie situation around her, and the reader is misled along with her. Rebecca is a masterclass in the search for secrets at the heart of a marriage as one woman tries to find out what became of her predecessor.
6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
He’s sly, is Humbert Humbert. He flatters the reader, and tries to bring them on side as he talks of his perverse infatuation with a prepubescent girl and attempts to justify his actions. A disgustingly brilliant book.
7. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I can hardly believe there is anyone left in the world who hasn’t read this yet, but it’s hard to beat for unreliable narration. The central character in its clever tale of mistrust and murder is unreliable simply because she’s drunk for much of the book and blacks out.
8. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
Never trust a narrator whose opening gambit is to insist he’s not mad. Although only a short story, this is a chilling tale of the effects of guilt on a person’s psyche will stay with readers a long time. Is the tell-tale heart really beating, spectrally, beneath the floorboards, or does murder create a hell of its own?
9. Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
From the outset, narrator Barbara’s acid tongue and confidence that she is the only one in a position to tell the sordid tale of an art teacher’s ill-judged affair with a pupil give the reader the nod that the perspective they are about to get on everyone involved is likely to be skewed.
10. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
After the boat a young boy was travelling on sinks, he’s left in a life raft on the ocean with only a tiger for company. Such a beautiful story, and yet at the end the reader is left to wonder how much is true and how much has been reimagined in order for him to cope with tragedy and the brutal struggle for survival. This narrator’s unreliabilty might just break your heart.