Monday, 21 June 2010

The unreliable narrator

Love her, or hate her? (Or him?) For myself, I love an unreliable narrator. I've recently re-read two first-rate examples, both by Jenefer Shute. Life-Size is a politically-astute, fiery and controversial story about a young woman in the grip of anorexia. Sex Crimes is a terrific thriller about an older woman's brutally destructive relationship with a younger man. Both books are told in the first person by a narrator whose perspective is skewed, almost fatally so, but such is Shute's skill as a storyteller that the reader is never too far from the truth no matter how the narrator might dodge or conceal it. In each case, these are amongst the most exciting and compelling stories I've ever read, poetically told, unsparingly bleak, ultimately rewarding.

A more subtle version of the unreliable narrator can be found in Helen Dunmore's Talking to the Dead, where the reader only starts to doubt the narrative after several chapters, by which time we are so wedded to it that it becomes an exercise in detection to separate the strands of what we are being told and what is not being said. It then becomes almost a competitive sport, as the reader and narrator race to the finish, each with their own piece of the puzzle that will - together - solve the mystery at the heart of the story.

Dunmore talks of this bond between the author and reader as a ‘very deep form of play’. She likens the reader response to that of a person watching a film, viewpoints changing as the camera draws back or closes in. ‘Language has a very powerful sound texture’ she says, enabling the author to capitalise on people’s familiarity with the visual medium of film.

So, do you have favourite examples of unreliable narrators? My list would have to include Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Please recommend your favourites, as I would love to read more of these sorts of stories.

10 comments:

Neon Blue said...

I don't think I've read many recently, so the unreliable narrator that sticks in my mind (aside from Humbert) would be The Turn of the Screw, though of course her reliability is a matter of much discussion.

There was a Bret Easton Ellis interview in Vibe magazine recently where the interviewer seemed to credit Ellis with, if not inventing the concept, at least creating the definitive examples. Which was a bit excessive, frankly.

Sarah Hilary said...

Golly, really? Ellis did not invent it, by a very long haul. Although I suppose his American Psycho is a good example of the genre. Hmm. Not sure about that claim - at all!

Claudia said...

I was going to comment this morning and mention Ellis, but looks like someone else was quicker.

He shouldn't get credit for the concept - he's hardly the first to use an unreliable narrator - but he used it very well and very frequently. American Psycho would obviously be the most cited example, but I actually think The Rules of Attraction is more remarkable because it provides the reader with an entire set of unreliable narrators. Sometimes you get to see a particular situation from as much as three different POVs, and the scene is described startingly different from each of the narrators to the point where the reader is left with the decision which of them (if any) to trust.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Claudia! Yes, Rules of Attraction is a great example. There's a Martin Amis book that does something similar, tells the story from the pov of two brothers, each of whom lies about his life. It's the layering that's effective, just as you say with RoA.

hpstrangelove said...

This is interesting to read; I'm not familiar with this term although I have an idea of the concept. Just goes to show that even at my age (51) I can learn something new.

(I just ordered Sex Crimes used from Amazon.)

Sarah Hilary said...

Good purchase, HP! You won't be disappointed.

Gay Degani said...

Hey you. I shoul be working but instead, I'm cruising the web my blog roll. Since I showed up here rather quickly, just want to say HI! Miss you, writing buddy.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Gay, great to see you! Miss you too. How's things?

Claire King said...

I love an unreliable narrator. They demand reader participation in the story. You can't be a passenger in those kind of novels; you have to think. For me this makes the book more engaging and compelling and as a reader it makes me feel clever. I think good fiction - at least literary fiction - should ask more questions than it gives answers.

Sarah Hilary said...

Perfectly put, Claire, and I agree. Not just literary fiction, either. Like you, I love feeling clever as a reader, and that can only happen if the writer is very clever herself.