Please welcome K.A. Servian back to the blog today!
I’m currently reading (well, listening to on Audible, if I’m honest) Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. It has been in the top ten alongside Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and The Lord of the Rings for ages, so I thought I should give it a go.
I very quickly came to the realisation I was dealing with an unreliable narrator in the protagonist, Eleanor. Her reactions to everyday situations seem odd and out of place, but as her back-story is slowly revealed, we begin to understand why. As a character she is wonderfully quirky. Her scorn over the ‘lack of manners’ in other people and her unintentional humour is skilfully portrayed by Honeyman.
Realising that Eleanor was unreliable because she was seeing things from her own skewed point of view, I started thinking about other examples of unreliable narrators.
Daphne Du Maurier uses the device in Rebecca. The protagonist (who remains unnamed) is unreliable because she doesn’t have all the information. She builds an image of her husband’s late wife that is completely wrong until we find out the truth about Rebecca at the end. This provides a very clever twist and, as readers, we realise when we look back there were clues all the way along—brilliant writing.
Another example of an unreliable narrator is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Carraway’s feelings about Tom, whom he views negatively, and Gatsby, whom he views positively, skew his opinions and therefore his narration. He is also an observer of the action rather than a participant, so does not always have all the information required to provide a balanced viewpoint.
In both of the above examples the narrator is unreliable because of their ignorance of the facts. But there are other ways to make your narrator unreliable. An example of a narrator who is deliberately misleading is the character of Michael Rogers in Agatha Christie’s Endless Night. I’m going to do a spoiler now so if you haven’t read this book and plan to read it, please close your eyes. Right until the very end Michael portrays himself as a bit of a drifter and a hopeless case who falls into a fortuitous marriage to Ellie, a rich, American heiress. However, we find out at the very end that Greta, who is apparently Ellie’s friend and confidant and appears to be a stranger to Michael, is in fact his lover and they have set out to ensnare and murder Ellie for her money.
Each of these examples uses an unreliable narrator in a slightly different way to add interest, intrigue and sometimes a shocking twist to their story.
Other examples of books that have an unreliable narrator are: Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
What are your thoughts on how the device is used by these authors and can you recommend other novels with unreliable narrators?
About the Author
An overwhelming urge to create led Kathy to pursue qualifications in both fashion design and screen-printing which were followed by a twenty-year career in the fashion and applied arts industries.
She then discovered a love of teaching and began passing on the skills she'd accumulated over the years—design, pattern-making, sewing, Art Clay Silver, screen-printing and machine embroidery to name a few.
Kathy’s first novel, Peak Hill, was a finalist in the Romance Writers of New Zealand Pacific Hearts Full Manuscript contest in 2016.
Her second novel, Throwing Light, was published in February 2017.
The Moral Compass is her third novel and the first in a historical series set predominantly in colonial New Zealand.
Having recently completed a diploma in advanced creative writing, Kathy fits writing around teaching sewing and being a wife and mother.
K. A. Servian on the web:
A Pivotal Right: (Shaking the Tree Book 2)
Florence struggled for breath as she stared in the face of a ghost. "Jack?"
Twenty years after being forced apart Jack and Florence have been offered a second chance at love. But can they find their way back to each other through all the misunderstandings, guilt and pain?
And what of their daughter, Viola? Her plan to become a doctor is based on the belief she has inherited her gift for medicine from Emile, the man she believed was her father. How will she reconcile her future with the discovery that she is Jack's child?
A Pivotal Right is the second book in the Shaking the Tree series set in colonial New Zealand. It continues the story of Jack and Florence begun in The Moral Compass.
The first unreliable narrator I remember reading was another Agatha Christie story (love her!!). Spoiler Alert: I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as soon as I'd finished it because I was so thrown off and fascinated by the ending. So well done!How about you? Any favourite unreliable narrators out there?Source