Monday, March 28, 2016

What we're reading: Unreliable narrators

An "unreliable narrator" is the protagonist of the book whose narration can't necessarily be taken at face value. He may be unreliable on purpose (he's lying, or he's a terrible person who can't be trusted not to mislead you), or he may be insane, or he may believe he's telling the truth but is wrong, because he is naive or has himself been misled.

Sometimes you know from the beginning that the narrator is unreliable. For instance, in The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield openly admits that he's a liar. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is naive and trusting, and his many misinterpretations of the events of his life reveal that his conclusions can't be trusted. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, the autistic boy telling the story has a unique perspective that is his alone.

Other times, you start a book trusting that the narrator is telling you the real story, only to find out differently as you keep going and cracks appear. For instance, in the first book of one of my favorite series ever, The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner (The Queen's Thief #1), the entire book proceeds from the viewpoint of Gen, who has been released from prison by a powerful magus on the condition that he steal a valuable artifact for the magus. The reader holds this view of circumstances almost to the end of the book, and then gets a big surprise that causes a re-evaluation of the entire situation. Lauren Oliver's book, Vanishing Girls, is a story about two sisters who inhabit the same house, but as events unfold, the reader starts to feel uneasy about what's actually going on, and learns that ultimately, the narrator's word isn't to be trusted.

Charm & Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn, is a book with an unreliable narrator, who is telling his story from two points of view, but both of them are his. The chapters alternate between a story told by his 10-year-old self, Drew, an angry young boy whose experiences one summer changed his life, and another by his 16-year-old self, Win, exiled to a boarding school, burdened with a secret past he can't allow anyone to know. The story is further complicated by the fact that neither boy is psychologically able to speak about most of his story, and there is maddeningly little explanation in either time frame.

You understand right away that this child and this boy are as fragile as fine china that's about to crack, but you don't know why, and it drives you crazy. You get clues as you go on reading: "Love doesn't always look nice." You see a child acting out, a teenager who is completely shut down but is roiling with conflict and despair, and you have to keep going to know what it is that made him this way. It's a disturbing, beautiful, profound book for mature teens who like their stories mysterious and their realities a little gritty.

Some other YA books with unreliable narrators you might enjoy:

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart  
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, by Michelle Hodkin   
Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer   
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky   
Dead to You, by Lisa McMann   
Invisible, by Pete Hautman



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