In fiction the unreliable narrator is an interesting, double-crossing sort of concept. Readers of fiction know that they are reading, well, fiction, and that their narrator is telling them stuff that is made up. So to have a narrator whose intentions the reader is suspicious of (is he or her telling an untruth about make-believe, or, are they remembering that make-believe accurately?) adds an extra element of awareness to the fiction reading experience.
Narrators can be unreliable purposefully or unwittingly (or it can be unclear whether there’s intent in the way they twist their stories). Either way, there have been some goodies and below is a small selection.
- Ellen Dean in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. It may be just that Nelly is opinionated, and an opinionated narrator can’t necessarily be trusted completely (the same can also be said for Lockwood), but Wuthering Heights is much more fun to read if you do so imagining Nelly as having a malign glint in her eye. At any rate, she’s been keeping literary critics busy for years.
- Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss. An epic, fantastical coming of age story. Can you trust a narrator who is a thief and an assassin (as the legend goes)? [As an aside, for an unreliable narrator in fantasy for kids you can’t go past the djinni Bartimaeus in the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, among whose talents is letting people know about his (overstated?) talents.]
- Pi in Life of Pi, Yann Martel. An excellent story of surivival and plucky courage, featuring a fabulous tiger with a most fitting name (Richard Parker), but what really happened?
- Briony Tallis in Atonement, Ian McEwan. Without giving too much away, Atonement spends some time musing about the relationship between writer, book and reader. This, by the way, and the whole point of the story (and title), works much better in the book than it does in the film, although the film does have that incredible mindblowing Dunkirk scene (even the music is cool).
- The unnamed narrator in The Turn of the Screw, Henry James. The best scary bits of any story (in print or on the screen) are the ones inside your head, so is the governess imagining things, or are the ghosts real?
- Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. Stevens is the quintessential butler, restrained, loyal and proper, which, it turns out, are not great attributes in the narrator of a story that takes uncomfortable, embarrassing and politically troubling turns.
- Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis. A catalogue of horrors narrated by the perpetrator of said horrors, this book has an R18 rating (by way of a warning).
- Eiji Miyake in Number9dream, David Mitchell. Unlike Patrick Bateman, Eiji is a charming narrator, but he does have trouble staying focussed as he walks the tightrope between reality and fantasy (which of course is totally the point).
- Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald. Is Gatsby really that great, or is Nick overly enamoured of the idea of him? He (Gatsby) never struck me as being much to write home about, although the novel certainly is.
- Micah in Liar, Justine Larbalestier. This is in the young adults’ collection (although an enjoyable read for adults too), and is a good introduction to the idea of the unreliable narrator, in that Micah holds your hand through the whole process, albeit in a somewhat taunting fashion. Being berated for being gullible is not something readers of fiction usually get from their narrators. In the end the easiest (not necessarily correct) conclusion to draw is that the whole story is a lie, which is I suppose one way of describing fiction.