The award-winning Australian crime writer Aoife Clifford, author of All These Perfect Strangers, a chilling novel featuring an ‘unreliable narrator’, tell us some of her favourite books featuring this literary device. ‘Unreliable narrators’ are found in some of the best crime novels, many classics, and even non-fiction.
I began my own novel, All These Perfect Strangers, with the words ‘This story could be told a hundred different ways,’ because fundamentally I think that each of us is the unreliable narrator of our own life.
Writing and reading in the first person allow you to see with the eyes of a character, gaining as much insight into them as you do about the world that surrounds them. It also is the perfect vehicle to play with ‘unreliable narrators’, a device that has a long history and has enjoyed recent success with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
A narrator can be unreliable in at least four different ways. They can be lying to you, lying to themselves, telling the truth selectively or it may be that they just do not understand the situation around them.
Below are ten of my favourites.
Agatha Christie – Murder of Roger Ackroyd
So few writers can genuinely claim they did something completely original, but this is one of the most influential crime books of all time. Some claim it to be Agatha Christie’s masterpiece but she’s got quite a few books worthy of that title. I love the twist so much I named my narrator after hers.
Karen Joy Fowler – We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
One of my favourite novels. Don’t Google anything about it, just go read it. Beautifully written, beautifully structured, this book demonstrates that unreliability is actually part of what it is to be human. The narrator’s unreliability allows one of the best twists in modern literature while giving us a masterclass on character, sibling relationships and what it is to be human. Perfect writing.
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day & Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro is the master for first persona narration as almost all of his novels and short stories use it. In The Remains of the Day, he allows the reader to understand the world far better than the narrator, Stephens, does. While Stephens believes that at all times he has behaved with honour, the reader can see the terrible mistakes he is making both personally and professionally. And once you finish this book, also try Never Let Me Go, another amazing piece of first person writing with a narrator deemed unreliable or incomplete by the world around her.
Margaret Atwood – Alias Grace
Such a clever writer and this is her best book. Based on true events, the question of Grace Mark’s responsibility in the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery is at the heart of this novel. It is likely that readers may differ on the answer. It’s going to be a Netflix mini-series, so read the book first.
David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
Another absolute favourite, this book’s structure is that of a matryoshka doll. Six different narratives, in different times, genres, characters and voices, sit inside each other. All but one of these narratives have first person elements in them, with varying degrees of unreliability. David Mitchell is a magician and ventriloquist with this book. Make sure to keep reading past the first section involving Adam Ewing (the slowest part) because you will be rewarded.
Donal Ryan – The Spinning Heart
Donal Ryan is an Irish writer and this is his first novel. Each chapter has a different character talking about their lives and the impact of Ireland’s financial collapse on them personally. The scramble for survival in a changing world by each character when added to each other makes a gorgeous whole. It’s funny. It’s angry. It’s marvellous.
Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking & Helen MacDonald – H is for Hawk
I thought I’d include some non-fiction as well. A classic and prize-winning book about what it is to grieve and mourn. Didion faces her own unreliability head on. The magical thinking in the title refers to her inability to accept that her husband, John Gregory Dunne, is dead and that she keeps believing that somehow she can change that outcome. Another brilliant memoir involving the madness of grief at the loss of a family memoir is H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald.
R.J.Palacio – Wonder
I came across this ‘wonderful’ book when my daughter’s fourth grade teacher read it out to her class. This is the story of August who has been born with serious facial deformities and finally heads off to school for the first time when he is ten. It is told in a series of first person narrations by August, his family and classmates. The unreliability stems from the age of the protagonists as they navigate the world around them. I loved it, my daughter loved it and her class loved it. One of the special things about reading is the empathy and understanding of the ‘other’ it brings. For that alone this is a standout book. Highly recommended for kids aged 10 and up if their teacher hasn’t got in first.