No x-ray goggles needed because Wayne C. Booth discovered “An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised” which exposes the motives and integrity of such a person. Character issues like faulty memory, deception, deliberate omission or a cheating self-deluded spouse are revealed over time.
A variety of genres use the unreliable narrator device but it’s usually attached to drama and crime situations where the protagonist cannot be trusted. The trick is when the writer withholds information which only certain characters can know, and vice-versa. The reader is lead along the wrong path, not exactly kept in the dark but not being told the full (or accurate) story by the narrator.
It’s easy to get into the whole first-person debate, and I wonder if the unreliable narrator is over-done. Sure, you don’t jump in and out of characters heads but the trend is more towards different characters with different chapters so they could all be potentially unreliable narrators. Like Agatha Christie’s penultimate “Murder on the Orient Express” or a game of Chinese Whispers, would the outcome of the story be entirely different to reader expectation? Would that be satisfactory? In my experience, I would have to say “no” it’s rather a cheap way out.
Two examples spring to mind, they are Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins which I didn’t enjoy. My reason for discontent was because Rachel Watson is an unreliable narrator due to heavy drinking (a literary crutch second only to mental illness) and the other characters overlap with half-truths and lies which muddy the waters to the extent of annoyance. And lo, I thought the resolution lacked power.
Search “unreliable narrator” and you will see many definitions e.g. Study Academy.com and examples like J D Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and titles like “The Wasp Factory” by Iain Banks, “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “The Three” by Sarah Lotz and “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk. My thoughts are echoed by Sarah Pinborough of The Guardian Top 10 Unreliable Narrators.
It’s similar to reading a book which is raw and experimental and you find out it is the debut novel of an Honours student who wrote it for a Master’s thesis and was lucky enough to have it published. Kinda good, kinda not.
“The Last Time I Lied” a thriller by Riley Sager is narrated by the main character, Emma Davis, who is an unreliable narrator but readers like her even though they don’t trust her. The tale is told in the present with flashbacks. So, is this story hinging the plot on a memory flaw, selective truth or something else? Naturally enough the answer can only be in the final reveal; that pause for reflection, that moment when the main character ties up loose ends.
In real life we are mostly unreliable narrators, just ask a policeman jotting down eyewitness statements, however that doesn’t always translate to an enthralling novel.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
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