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Five fascinating unreliable narrators

By Dani Di Placido • November 30, 2018The Bookish Life

Every narrator is, to some degree, unreliable. Each and every story, from dirty gossip to holy gospel, has been filtered by the perspective of the storyteller, sometimes twisted beyond recognition.

Narrative is always relative, by nature, and authors can exploit this ambiguity to their advantage. An unreliable narrator forces the reader to really engage with the story, often prompting a reread, and sparks interesting conversations (and disagreements) with fellow readers.

Stretching the truth turns a dull anecdote into a tall tale, and we'd all rather hear the stretched version of the story, if we're being perfectly honest.

Here are five great stories, warped by unreliable narrators:


We Need To Talk About Kevin
Lionel Shriver

This novel is told from the perspective of an unhappy mother, Eva, reflecting on her unenviable experience raising a school shooter, knowing the boy was a bad apple from day one.

Her son, Kevin, appears to despise her the second he escapes the womb, while Eva describes her pregnancy as feeling somewhat parasitic.

From Eva’s perspective, it appears that she was essentially raising the Antichrist, just waiting for Kevin to seal his fate and do something unforgivable. But there’s a terrible feeling throughout the novel that Eva’s take might just be a little bit twisted.

If we fully accept Eva’s story, we accept the existence of pure evil, which pushes the novel into the realm of the supernatural. If we don’t, then the story becomes that of a neglectful mother, and Kevin becomes the victim.

The brilliance of the story lies in that inherent conflict, and it is difficult to decide which version is less disturbing.


Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Kate Atkinson

Ruby Lennox is a witty, opinionated narrator who seems to know the innermost thoughts and feelings of everyone she encounters; she even judges her mother's incredibly unsatisfying marriage from inside the womb. Being all-knowing, however, doesn't stop this narrator from lying to herself.

Ruby’s cold upbringing, relayed with a dry British wit, unwinds her sordid family history, a tale that spans several generations of women, and they all have their own reasons to be disappointed with the path they’ve chosen, or been pressured into following.

Trauma seems to be carried through the X chromosome, accumulating and entwining through the family tree, unspoken, poisoning everything it touches.

If Ruby could only acknowledge it, it might place all of those memories into context.


Life of Pi
Yann Martel

A whimsical fairytale that gets twisted into a horror story when Pi, the ultimate unreliable narrator, finally reveals the truth.

Pi first introduces himself as a boy addicted to religion, mixing and matching different belief systems. It's obvious that Pi is not seeking facts, but meaning, and he sees the metaphorical truth hidden inside the holy books - all of them.

Later on, he uses this sophisticated combination of spirituality and psychology to tell himself a story, in order to digest a deeply disturbing experience.

Pi believes his story, despite knowing it is not literally true, and we, the reader, choose to believe it with him.


Irvine Welsh

This novel has the distinction of featuring the most unlikable narrator I have ever encountered, but manages to be a gripping story, regardless.

Detective Bruce Robertson is the most manipulative man imaginable; the mind games he “plays” with his friends, coworkers, and sexual partners aren’t just unsettling, they’re unquestionable abusive, and yet, Bruce never gets the slightest ounce of satisfaction from any of them.

But Bruce is carrying a parasite inside him (literally and figuratively), and his toxicity stems from the terrible secret he conceals. This story might be pretty repugnant at times, but offers an insightful look inside the head of a truly terrible human being.

Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) has an unnerving talent for creating characters that are funny, sympathetic, and yet, incredibly unpleasant.


Fight Club
Chuck Palahniuk

The most famous unreliable narrator in fiction might just be…umm…well, we don’t ever find out his name. But if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that he knows Tyler Durden, who happens to be the world’s most interesting and charismatic individual.

This book might be overshadowed by the film, but I highly recommend it regardless; Chuck Palahniuk’s twisted tale of love and friendship hasn't aged at all. Indeed, his vision of an army of angry, aimless young men venting their frustration by forming fight clubs was alarmingly accurate.

By the end of the novel, we technically should have an in-depth understanding of our protagonist, seeing as we’ve been given an intimate tour inside his mind, but strangely, we don't know him at all.

For more blog content, read Seven different types of readers

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