I’ve been spending many nights with unreliable narrators this past year, be it Amy and Nick Dunne from Gone Girl or Nora Eldridge from The Woman Upstairs. Books like those keep me up at night, plagued by increasing anxiety about the reality outside the character’s head.
One of the best unreliable narrators is Humbert Humbert from Lolita, who shrouds his delusions with powerful arguments. He’s a master at explaining away his terrible behavior. Why is this so compelling to readers? There’s something both shameful and mesmerizing about a narrator who can make the reader feel like a fool by the end of their story.
Literature boasts a lot of these questionable characters, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, the unnamed narrator in Fight Club, and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Lee Fiora from Prep is another one who lingers in my mind. They’re all hard to like and impossible to forget.
I spent this past weekend with Amber Hewerdine, the protagonist in Kind of Cruel, Sophie Hannah’s latest thriller to reach us from across the pond. The book begins when Amber goes to see a hypnotherapist in hopes of curing her insomnia. Her appointment takes a bizarre turn when Amber offers up the same phrase as the title. She has no idea where she saw the phrase “Kind of Cruel,” and her efforts to unlock her own memory drag her right into the middle of a murder investigation. Obviously there’s something bubbling in Amber’s subconscious that she can’t confront. And if a character can’t face the truth, how can we expect them to share the facts with us?
Sophie Hannah’s thrillers always feature unreliable narrators. Even her recurring detectives, Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse, can’t be trusted to understand the world around them accurately. They’re good at solving crimes, but they have no insight into their own lives or relationships. Even their marriage remains riddled with questions that make you hurt for them. What would it be like to be married to an unreliable narrator? That’s the world they exist in because they can’t even tell the truth to each other within their mutual relationship.
If you haven’t read Hannah before and you enjoy psychological suspense, you’re missing out. All her books have kept me turning the pages, but my favorites are The Dead Lie Down and The Wrong Mother. (I loved Kind of Cruel, but I’m sticking with the first two as my top picks). Her plots are both complex and impossible to guess before the end, and the key to her style is how well she creates and develops unreliable narrators. I would say they’re her specialty.
So with all these disturbed and delusional protagonists around, who are some fictional characters we can trust? I find the narrators of Jane Austen’s novels quite trustworthy, being both third person and mostly impartial in tone. But at the end of the day, is there such a thing as a reliable narrator? There will always be some limited point of view when someone tells us a story. As readers, we have to bring our own best judgment to the table and take away what we will.
It’s a good thing we don’t have to trust characters to appreciate them. What’s important is how they tell the story, not the truth of it, right? I guess that’s why they call it fiction. As long as a narrator can captivate us, we can be satisfied. But I’m glad we can close the book and leave them between the pages. I wouldn’t want to live with a storyteller I couldn’t trust.
Miriam Landis is a web monkey for Island Books on Mercer Island, WA, where she also writes for the store’s journal, Message in a Bottle. She joined the publishing industry in 2004 with an internship at Simon & Schuster and worked as an assistant editor at Hyperion and a site merchandiser on the Amazon books team. A former professional ballerina, she’s the author of two novels about ballet, Girl in Motion, and the sequel, Breaking Pointe and the mother of twins Stephen Marc and Lynne Dena, born in September of 2012.