Unreliable narrators bring me great joy. It’s not the idea that they’re tricking the reader that I find compelling—it’s all the more fascinating when a narrator can’t trust herself. In this way, unreliable narrators are harbingers of horror. What is more frightening than dementia, going crazy, or tipping over that fine line that separates sanity and insanity? And what’s more fascinating that the machinations of the human brain? When unreliable is done well—really well—you can’t hate the protagonist for fooling you. You empathize, and you burn to find out more about how the narrator’s brain works—or in some cases, what or whom is responsible for provoking delusions.
Even when the narrator deliberately withholds from the reader (as in the case of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson), it is often justifiable withholding. Still, it begs the question: what responsibility does the author have to be honest with the reader? At what point does withholding information constitute betrayal of your audience? If outright lying or a subtler withholding are integral parts of the story and its characters, does anything go? And when unreliability is used as a device to shock readers (rather than to see a story through its natural arc), is its intended impact altogether lost?
Without further ado, below are five of my favorite novels (a mix of YA and adult) featuring narrators that will shock, frighten, and delight you with their trickery!
In Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge, Triss wakes sopping wet after a mysterious accident that’s wiped her memory. She soon notices slight alterations to her world: an insatiable appetite; a strained relationship with her sister, who fears her; and dolls that seem to come alive. This truly bone-chilling exploration of how families grapple with devastating loss will leave readers questioning who Triss really is and what happened the night of her accident.
We Were Liars
We Were Liars needs no introduction for most; but this suspenseful tale of a girl whose very existence revolves around the happy summers she spends on her family’s private island is one that begs multiple reads for the twists it reveals each time. This novel is where onion similes are born. With layers both beautiful and horrific and tension so anxiety-laden you may need a Xanax, E. Lockhart’s beautiful prose will captivate. Although experienced readers of psychological thrillers may anticipate the truth behind Cadence’s headaches and her family’s grief, the twist will feel no less gratifying (or haunting). Cadence is an unreliable narrator whom you feel for…and whom your heart breaks for.
Code Name Verity
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is one of the most beautifully-written and authentic stories I’ve read about female friendship in years. Verity is arrested by the Gestapo in Nazi-occupied France when her British spy plane crashes…with her best friend in the pilot seat. The book reads as a confession as well as a recounting of the girls’ relationship and what led to the crash. The narrators are at once unreliable and sympathetic; and even as the “betrayal” of one leads to the death of another, both emerge as tragic heroines.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
“Insidious” is the best word I can think of to describe the creeping, cold horror that slowly and deliciously unveils itself in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I don’t want to give much away if you haven’t read it; but this particular books plays directly to my fear of betrayal at the hands of a loved one. (You might note that “betrayal” is a running theme in this post! And it’s the foundation of all great horror and every unreliable narrator.) Shirley Jackson masterfully controls her reveals bit by bit via the eyes of Merricat Blackwood. The overarching mystery concerning the Blackwood family’s isolation at their estate gives way to bigger themes of love, manipulation, ostracism, and the origins of evil. Pick this one up and be prepared to have your mind blown—this is best read on a sunny day with friends in tow.
The Turn of the Screw
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is a classic, ghostly tale and the first on this list written by a man! Interestingly, there are no clear answers at the end of this eerie story in which the governess might be mad or might be seeing ghosts. The ambiguous ending might frustrate some readers, but others may see it as a perfect example of open-endedness: either solution is equally satisfying and has equally chilling implications. I’m in favor of an ambiguous ending, because it avoids using tropes such as memory loss or even blatant lying to excuse twists the narrator is concealing. It’s also very, very difficult to set up two equally convincing outcomes, both of which confound a book’s audience.
Go forth and read these mind-bending literary masterpieces that may or may not leave you questioning your sanity!
Avery Hastings is the pen name of a New York City-based author and book editor who can often be found nosing through thrift store racks and lounging in the park with her friendly dog. Despite her burning love for unreliable narrators, she considers herself a solidly reliable teller of truths…at least off the page.