Unreliable Narrators

I started listening to the next Amelia Peabody book – The Hippopotamus Pool – a few days ago. It started out a little differently than the previous books. Instead of Amelia diving right in to the narrative without much preamble, the “editor” of Mrs. Amelia Peabody Emerson’s personal diaries sprinkled her own commentary via footnotes throughout a rather lengthy introduction by Mrs. Emerson herself that recounted the major events of the previous books. It served a dual purpose: catch the reader (or listener, as in my case) up to speed on the pertinent events of the previous books that would impact the events of the current one, and make us laugh. Take this passage:

Text: “The date of my birth is irrelevant. I did not truly exist until 1884, when I was in my late twenties.”

Footnote: “This is not consistent with other sources. However, the editors were of the opinion it would be discourteous to question a lady’s word.”

The “other source” the editor refers to is in fact the first novel in the series, when Miss Peabody tells her readers that she is thirty-two years old in 1884. The editor points out other inconsistencies throughout the introduction, and they all made me grin. While I love Amelia all the more for it, it also made me wonder…exactly how much should I take her at her word? Is her dashing husband really all that dashing, or is he only dashing when seen through her eyes? (Isn’t the latter much more romantic anyway?) It helps that the editor is voiced by Davina Porter, who is one of my top five favorite audiobook narrators.

A few other famous unreliable narrators include Dr. Sheppard from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Briony Tallis from Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I have varying levels of tolerance and appreciation for stories with unreliable – or outright dishonest – narrators, and it depends on the purpose of the character being written in such a way. With Amelia, it’s done for comedic effect, and I love it. In Atonement, it seems as if Ian McEwan did it to make me cry (it worked). Oh, and to bring up all those fancy meta-fiction issues while he’s at it. I thought it was brilliant, and it helped lessen my antagonistic feelings toward Briony. (I also thought the movie adaptation was just as good as the book, a quality that is very rare.) I can just imagine Dame Agatha patting herself on the back and grinning slyly when she first devised the events of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I’m still undecided on whether I believe what she did was a genius move or a dirty cheat. Then again, it can be argued that fiction needs to be related by a less than honest narrator in order for the fiction to be honest at all, another one of those true oxymorons.

If you’re interested in reading books with a narrator who may not be entirely trustworthy, check out the three I’ve mentioned above and the few below:

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz
Odd Thomas (not short for Todd) is a twenty year old fry cook who sees dead people. It’s much better and much less creepy than the Sixth Sense, and Odd as a narrator is engaging, likable, and honest – usually. In the first installment (it became so popular it blossomed into a series), Odd must stop some very bad men from perpetrating something horrible upon his small California town. Unless you have a cold cold heart, the ending will make you cry.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka
I outgrew picture books very early on in my reading life, but this is one that I returned to many times. Scieszka is just so clever with everything he writes. Here, Alexander T. Wolf sets the record straight – he was not an evildoer who huffed and puffed, he simply had a very bad cold. And the pigs were rude anyway. Telling classic stories from the point of view of the “bad guy” has always been popular, but no one has done it better than Scieszka.

The Banned and the Banished, by James Clemens
You probably haven’t heard of this series. I don’t blame you if you haven’t – it’s a fantasy that is typical of its genre, with a lot of magic, black-hearted villains, and young good-looking heroes. It’s the kind of stuff that I just eat up. The editor prefaces each book with a notice that everything you will be reading is false, the author of the book is a traitor, and in order to even be allowed to read his/her lies, you must be an advanced scholar, put your thumbprint on the page, and swear to tell no one what you have read. It’s up to you to determine which person – the editor or the author – is the unreliable one. This aspect of the series is what hooked me, although it tells a very entertaining story too.

While searching Goodreads and Librarything for books tagged as unreliable narrators, I came across James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Two Librarything users had tagged this nonfiction book, now notorious for its falseness, as having an unreliable narrator. I suppose in the strictest meaning of the phrase, it’s true. But there’s a sense with fiction that it’s okay for the writer to deceive us – it’s not the writer who’s doing the deceiving anyway, is it? The deceitful one is the narrator, who we all learn in grade school English classes is a separate entity from the author. So perhaps I should give Christie a free pass after all – Dr. Sheppard is the one who pulled the wool over my eyes.

What’s your take? Do you like reading books with unreliable narrators, or would you prefer it if the narrator just told it to you straight? Did you want to strangle Christie after she so blatantly and inexcusably broke one of the primary rules of detective fiction? What are some other books with unreliable narrators that I should check out?

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  1. says

    I can’t remember the last time I read a book with an unreliable narrator, and in fact, it’s something I’d love to do when I get around to actually writing my novel. If done well, I think it could be a great book and great reading exercise.

    I know for sure that Justine Larbalsteir’s new one out in October, “Liar,” will feature just that.

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