When the narrator is unreliable and can’t be trusted, we, the reader have to think for ourselves to figure out the story. We’ll evaluate the situations and characters critically in the book to figure out what’s going on. Sometime we’ll draw our own conclusions and judge the characters as the author didn’t do it for us.
There are so many reasons behind narrator’s reliability. Sometimes they are consciously and intentionally lying, sometimes they misunderstood the situations, and perhaps they’re drunk, or amnesiac, or suffer from some other conditions that keep us doubting their version of story. (We’re all unreliable narrator, because our version of any events or occurrence or incidents is just one of many. But that’s not what we are looking here.)
Some stories are too ambiguous that they don’t resolve their plots. Readers reach to the final page without the knowledge of what’s actually happening or happened. It’s on readers how they fill the blanks. For few of us this is delight to decide what happens next by ourselves and some of us just close the book with frustrations.
Do you need some ideas of this category of narration? I’m sharing few of my favorite books with unreliable narrator and ambiguous endings.
The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Prodigiously rich Jay Gatsby has built a mansion on Long Island Sound for the only purpose of pursuing his lost love Daisy Buchanan, who married another man while Gatsby was serving overseas. This classic captures the American Jazz Age in all its decadence and excess, while weaving a wistful story of love and loss.
The story narrated by Nick Carraway, but can we really trust his version of the tale? The answer of this differs from reader to reader.
Author: Daphne du Maurier
This 1930s Gothic classic is well-crafted suspenseful thriller that holds its tension on re-reading as well. Don’t be put off by its age.
This thrilling novel feels surprisingly current. Because the young unnamed wife doesn’t understand what’s going on for a long time, neither does the reader.
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert, the narrator and main character of Lolita, flatters the reader. He tries to bring us on side as he talks of his perverse infatuation with an adolescent girl and attempts to justify his actions. It’s disgustingly brilliant book.
He’s either unreliable narrator or too honest to be believed. What do you think of character of Humbert Humbert?
Lie to Me
Author: J.T. Ellison
Author established the character of narrator with her first line of the book: “you aren’t going to like me very much.” Who do you think this narrator is and why does he/she say that? That’s the very first query arises when you begin to read this book.
Sutton and Ethan Montclair have the perfect marriage or it looks like they have! Both were successful writers who loved each other. They understand and support one another. Or that’s what other people think. When Sutton disappears, leaving a note telling Ethan not to search for her. As the time passes, it quickly becomes obvious that their relationship was anything but perfect. And that is when things get really ominous.
Elizabeth Is Missing
Author: Emma Healey
It’s a psychological mystery book which presents an extremely unreliable narrator. The unreliability of narrator is not for usual reason though. The main protagonist, Maud, an 81-year-old woman with worst dementia, was convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing.
As everyone knows she is a patient of dementia; no one believes her including police or her son and her daughter. But Maud becomes convinced that another life is at stake and she has to unravel the mystery.
Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
The story revolves around Piscene Patel, a teenage boy for India. He survives a shipwreck and eventually spends 227 days on a life raft with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
After years, Pi tells his own story of survival, but a surprise at the end of narration leaves the readers wondering if they really understood what happened on that raft.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Author: Karen Joy Fowler
It’s a story about a completely normal family living in middle America with major exception. Daughter Rosemary who is our narrator, insists on first page that she needs to skip the beginning of this story and begin from the middle instead.
We soon learn when Rosemary’s sister left, everyone fell apart and picking up the pieces.
All the Missing Girls
Author: Megan Miranda
It’s a story of two girls disappeared from same town North Carolina a decade apart. Nicolette Farrell left her hometown for good after her best friend vanished, ten years ago, without trace.
She never wanted to go back home, but a phone call that informed her about her dad’s sickness bring her back. Shortly after her arrival another girl disappears. The real twist here is the intriguing format of storytelling.
I Let You Go
Author: Clare Mackintosh
Having “shocking plot twist” for every suspense novels is essential. But this densely crafted book will make your jaw drop every time you read it and yet you’ll not feel that you’re tricked or manipulated to conclude story.
On a dingy, rainy night, a mother let go her son’s hand for just an instant. This shattering misfortune sets the plot in motion.
Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsay
In this Australian Short classic by Joan Lindsay, a group of girls from the Appleyard College goes for a picnic at Hanging Rock.
On that beautiful or tragic afternoon three of the girls set out for hiking and never came again. ‘What might have happened to them?’ is the question you will ask to yourself.
In the Woods
Author: Tana French
It’s first book of Author’s popular Dublin Murder Squad series. It’s tight, full of the twists and turns and unpredictable.
The story has two primary themes: one revolves around a psychopath, the other around a supernatural disturbance. The ending of the book is perfect suitable for book clubs and book discussion group.
Author: Ian McEwan
The story pivots on a terrible, life-changing lie told by a thirteen year old girl and its disastrous consequences.
But in the book it’s all about the treacherous power of imagination. The characters’ imaginations for their own futures are astounding.
The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt began the story with a murder. The lonely and introspective narrator then commits the rest of the book telling about his part in murder, and how he sneaked away with it. But it’s readers who need to decide how much to believe on narrator and his story?
The story is set in a small Vermont College the characters are members of a secluded, peculiar circle of classic majors. One of them murders one of their own.
The Girl on the Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
Paula Hawkins wrote this psychological thriller in the first person narrative from the perspective of three women.
The dreadful unwinding facts that author created will leave you hooked and catch you till the end.
Author: Gillian Flynn
It’s one of the most racy bestseller books of recent times across the globe. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is mystery thriller book.
The suspense is built by unreliable narrator and main characters of the book, Nick Dunne and Amy, in the first part of the book. In the second part author unravel the truth and hidden realities.
Author: Emily Brontë
This classic by Emily Bronte challenged the stern Victorian beliefs and created controversies.
Though the author was recognized for a powerful imagination, this classic faced a lot of criticism for its bold and unrestrained characters and plot.
The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J D Salinger
Originally written for adults, this JD Salinger novel made Holden Caulfield – the protagonist, an icon for teenage rebels.
This coming-of-age novel is a brilliant narration embedded with myriad timeless themes.
What are your pick for this category? And what books would you like to add to this list?
Read more about unreliable narrator here.