My VCFA class name is “The Unreliable Narrators.”
That’s because we’re a bunch of lying cheating no-good dirty scoundrels.
But also, that was a term we learned our first semester when everyone was talking about Chris Lynch’s INEXCUSABLE. It was one of those things that made it clear we were in a MFA Program. We could name those tricky things we admired in the books we read.
Usually a reader suspends this world we live in while entering a story world. Our guide is the narrator. We sink in and believe what we’re told. An unreliable narrator is one that can’t be trusted. He or she is either lying or withholding information. The reader is not getting the whole truth – for a very particular reason. NOT because the author is lazy. It’s actually quite challenging to pull off.
Maybe it’s just because I love my class of lying cheating no-good dirty scoundrels, but I do find a well crafted unreliable narrator story intriguing. I think it comes down to my delight in being surprised and also my interest in issues of mental health. Like Holden Caulfield, one shining example, the unreliable narrator is often incapable of telling the “truth” because he/she is a bit unbalanced.
Oddly enough, I have just read three different books with unreliable narrators. They are far from being the same story, but they all use this technique to build tension and suspense. I don’t want to tell too much about the plots–that’s the whole point of this kind of story–but I recommend each of these.
WE WERE LIARS by E Lockhart The narrator is Cadence Sinclair, a wealthy seventeen year old girl–her family owns an entire island and that’s just for summers–with crippling headaches and a penchant for giving away all her belongings. (YA)
COMPLICIT by Stephanie Kuehn is told by Jamie Henry, a seventeen year old boy. His family is also wealthy and he lives a life of privilege, but it wasn’t always that way. He and his sister Cate had a rough early childhood and they’re both still haunted. (YA)
The third book is a little different. Written for adults and with a focus on a soldier just back from a tour of Iraq, BE SAFE I LOVE YOU by Cara Hoffman is unusual in that Lauren Clay is an unreliable narration told from a close third person point of view. It’s far more typical for a story with an unreliable narrator to be told in first person so we only get information from that one dysfunctional perspective. But Lauren is so deeply troubled and altered by her experience, we can’t trust everything she sees and thinks. (Adult)
The excellent use of an unreliable narrator prompts me to return to the beginning and see what hints I missed. It’s fascinating to see how I was fooled.
Go ahead and see what you think. You can trust me. Even if I am a lying cheating no-good dirty scoundrel.