From Gone Girl to Girl on a Train: The Unreliable Narrator
To Know or Not To Know? That is the question…the challenge of writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator.
Unreliable narrators – those slippery customers who are determined to mislead, confuse and plain lie to the reader – are not a new phenomenon. We may be seeing a lot more of them in recent bestsellers – Gone Girl, Girl on a Train and The Reluctant Fundamentalist to name but three – but Aristophanes was already playing with our heads 2,500 years ago.
This popular authorial device gathers the reader into the narrator’s confidence, leading us like lambs into his or her world. Then the ground beneath us suddenly shifts, leaving us off balance, uneasy, unsure and searching for a foothold.
I love the uncertainty of the disconnect between what people say and do – and the delicious realization that nothing is what it seems. But it can be tricky to pull off. Leave the reveal too late and the reader may feel cheated rather than thrilled. Go too early and the drama may be lost.
It can be a minefield and I tiptoed into my own with some trepidation in my first novel, The Widow.
There was no deliberate decision when I set out to write my book but my main character, Jean Taylor – the widow of a man accused of taking a child – turned out to be untrustworthy. She just was. So I went along with it.
Jean speaks for herself in the novel, her interior voice commentating on what is happening around her and occasionally completely at odds with her own actions. She deliberately lies to some people – the reporter at her door, the detective investigating the disappearance of the child. But, Jean also deceives herself about the reality she is facing. That denial of what is plain to others is something that has fascinated me throughout my career as a newspaper reporter.
In criminal trials, I would find myself watching the wife of the man in the dock, a man accused of a terrible crime, and wondering what she really knew, or allowed herself to know. I wanted to understand how she coped with the idea that her husband – the man she chose to spend her life with – might be a monster.
Jean Taylor emerged from that fascination. She is the quiet woman I had seen so often, watching, expressionless, as her husband gave evidence or staring out of a window as the media gathered to ask difficult questions.
And she and I explored the gradual disintegration of her world, together.
As a writer, I found myself faced with a number of decisions. The most important was what should Jean know when, swiftly followed by what should the reader be allowed to see or hear?
It is a complicated process for a first time novelist so I went to the experts for guidance.
It is done to perfection in The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, where the narrator, Changez (clue may have been in the name!) presents himself as the helpful guide to an American tourist in his home town, but as his interior voice lets us into his real thoughts, he gradually gnaws away at our certainty. We are given glimpses of his reality and the sense of menace and suspense grows.
And the queen of unreliability, Lionel Shriver, who beckons us into her deception in We Need to Talk About Kevin in the letters between the parents of a teenager who has massacred his classmates, drip feeding us clues as to how this tragedy unfolded and shocking us into silence with her brilliant ending.
It seemed that motivation was the key issue in creating that wonderful oxymoron, a believable unreliable narrator.
I looked at why people lie to themselves or others. I suppose we all set out to deceive at different times; white lies about a friend’s terrible haircut, exaggerating our successes, minimizing our mistakes, blaming others for our failures.
And for some, it is simple naivety, like the troubled adolescent, Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye’; or is the narrator deliberately misleading us to hide his or her guilt until the big reveal at the end (spoiler alert!) as in the film, The Usual Suspects? Or is it the self-deception of Stevens the butler whose world is destroyed by the revelation of his revered master’s treachery in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and the vile, self-serving Barbara Covett in Zoe Williams’ Notes on a Scandal?
For Jean, it was a mixture – self-preservation, when she risked losing everything, love for her husband, disbelief that her life might be built on a lie. And so, she retreats into denial – “We are all living in my lie, now” she says – and we follow her, watching her every move.
It was an all-consuming journey for me as a writer, seeing, not seeing, being Jean, being the other narrators in the novel. But in the end, it will be the reader who decides who to believe.
Fiona Barton is the author of THE WIDOW, out on February 16 from New American Library.