Love them or hate them, unreliable narrators can make a book 1000x more fun.
There’s something so captivating about a person who might be lying through their teeth while pretending to be completely transparent. Don’t get me wrong, not every unreliable narrator is skillfully written – but they don’t deserve a bad rep just because some of them aren’t up to par. So, today, I’ve brought you ten unreliable narrators I adored reading about.
Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:
1. I’m in a coma.
2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie.
Amber wakes up in a hospital. She can’t move. She can’t speak. She can’t open her eyes. She can hear everyone around her, but they have no idea. Amber doesn’t remember what happened, but she has a suspicion her husband had something to do with it. Alternating between her paralyzed present, the week before her accident, and a series of childhood diaries from twenty years ago, this brilliant psychological thriller asks: Is something really a lie if you believe it’s the truth?
THOUGHTS: Sometimes I Lie was a wild ride, one of the wildest rides a thriller has ever taken me on, in fact. The story is captivating and filled with twists, and Amber is an incredible narrator who also happens to be unreliable. She is struggling to recall the events leading up to her accident and, being in a coma, she cannot ask the people around her for more information. Most importantly, though, she herself admits to “sometimes” lying, so despite how truthful and transparent she seems, we’re left guessing just how honest she’s being.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison
This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
THOUGHTS: Fantasy novels rarely make it onto “best unreliable narrator” lists, but I simply had to make an exception for The Fifth Season, also known as one of the best novels I’ve read this year. The way the book is built up, there’s a lot we don’t know as readers and Essun, whose chapters are in second person singular, isn’t known for her willingness to be transparent. Essun’s chapters are captivating and complex – and so is the rest of the book – so I highly recommend this, especially to those who enjoy dense, complicated fantasies.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?
As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?
THOUGHTS: Gone Girl is such a classic I feel like everyone who wanted to read it has already read it, but in case you haven’t – please do! It’s not only one of my favorite thrillers, but also one of my all time favorite books, in part because it’s trippy to be in the heads of our narrators, Amy and Nick. Gone Girl is heavy on lies and deceit, and will keep you on your toes until the very last page.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise, I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead…
THOUGHTS: We Have Always Lived in the Castle is short – a novella, rather than a novel – dark and twisted, aka the perfect Halloween read. The characters feel weird and spooky from the get go, including (especially?) our narrator Mary Katherine, and the atmosphere is one of the most suffocating I’ve ever seen in a book. A masterpiece.
Little Darlings by Melanie Golding
Lauren, a new mother, is exhausted by the demands of her twin boys. Since coming home from the hospital, she rarely leaves the house. But it isn’t only new motherhood keeping her there. Lauren knows someone is watching them and someone wants her babies. It started with an incident at the hospital and an emergency call in the middle of the night. No one believes her — not her husband, not the police — until one day in the park when everything changes. Is Lauren mad or does she know something no one else does?
THOUGHTS: Little Darling is one of my top books of 2019, and certainly one of my favorite thrillers I’ve ever read. It was quite masterful how Lauren’s chaotic fears are balanced out by Jo, a detective working on Lauren’s case. Lauren, while sometimes wondering about her mental health, believes strongly in the supernatural, while Jo, despite considering the possibility, will always turn to practical answers. Due to their belief in their truth, neither of them is a completely reliable narrator, which made for an interesting read.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
A very young woman’s first job: governess for two weirdly beautiful, strangely distant, oddly silent children, Miles and Flora, at a forlorn estate…An estate haunted by a beckoning evil.
Half-seen figures who glare from dark towers and dusty windows- silent, foul phantoms who, day by day, night by night, come closer, ever closer. With growing horror, the helpless governess realizes the fiendish creatures want the children, seeking to corrupt their bodies, possess their minds, own their souls…
But worse-much worse- the governess discovers that Miles and Flora have no terror of the lurking evil.
For they want the walking dead as badly as the dead want them.
THOUGHTS: The Turn of the Screw is a chilling tale of horror and fear, and its unreliability comes from the governess’ utter confusion. She (seemingly?) wants what’s best for the children, and yet, the ending leaves us with lots of questions, including questions regarding her character. Is she really good? Is she going insane? Is this all true?
Fun fact: The second season of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House will be based on The Turn of the Screw!
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.
On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.
Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…
What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?
THOUGHTS: The Walls Around Us has one of the best conclusions I’ve ever read; it’s surprising, a bit twisted and satisfying all at once. The story is told through the point of views of two girls: ballet dancer Violet and juvenile detention center inmate Amber. They are both complex, captivating characters… but they don’t always excel at telling the full truth, which is the very thing that makes them fun to read about.
- We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
- Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
- The Dead House by Dawn Kurtagich
- My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Do you like unreliable narrators? Who are your favorites? Have you read any of these books?