The Unreliable Narrator

The Unreliable Narrator

girl on the train

You can have too much of something. When I first discovered Jodi Picoult, I read every title I could get my hands on. A solid six months of the same author can show flaws and patterns that make every book feel the same. Having learnt my lesson, I restricted myself to one a year. Maybe two. A lot of her new stuff have come away from broken families fighting law room drama. During my time at Waterstones, we were encouraged to put similar books together. If You Like, You’ll Love! Now I’m thinking that’s a bad idea…

Last week I read a book my mother asked me to read, she needed my opinion and more importantly, my clarity. It was called Sometimes I Lie. A woman is in a coma after an accident. The clue is in the title, she’s a liar. But who is she lying too? The people around her or us? Having read a few of these books I’m questioning if the use of an ‘unreliable narrator’ is lazy storytelling. Let’s discuss.

Maybe the most iconic of these is The Girl on the Train. It would be a short book if our narrator had a good memory rather than being an alcoholic. Told from three viewpoints, two present their version of the truth and the third is a professional liar. She convinces her roommate she has a job but travels to London every day. On top of that, it’s frustrating that she holds the key to this murder but her alcoholic brain can’t make the pieces fit. Given this it’s a third of the book and it’s character flaw, maybe we can forgive it. She’s not lying. It’s a device to create suspense.

On the opposite end of the scale we have I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. Spoilers ahead. The book opens with a child being killed in a hit and run. A woman runs away to a remote Welsh cottage. We’re led to believe that she is the suffering mother. It comes out she was in the car and she may have been behind the wheel. Like the rest of the book, the prologue was in first person. In my mind, it’s lying to the audience and I hate that. We have set up to believe one thing for a big reveal that is oh so fashionable. The narrator refuses to discuss what happened and withholding that information. It’s a neat trick but it’s a trick.

Another way a narrator could be unreliable is if they are bias. One of my favourite books of 2016 was The Truth about the Harry Quebert by Joel Dicker. A young writer visits his mentor during a small town scandal involving him and the killing of a young girl. There are many layers to this novel which is why I worship it so much. There are twists and turns but rather than withholding information or lying to us, suspense is created by the narrator’s doubt. He knows the truth and shares it with the reader but he also shares his doubts.

There are many ways to keep your readers in suspense, some are cleverer than others. Lying is wrong.

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