I’ve just read My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh for Bookbrowse and very much enjoyed it.
It’s first and foremost a piece of literary fiction. But Walsh steps up the tension and suspense in his novel by giving his reader a narrator who admits on page three that he is a suspect in the rape of a fifteen-year-old girl. The attack, carried out ‘by a man or perhaps a boy,’ is described with a degree of detail – the heat of the night, the gnashing of insects in the bush where the rapist waits, the scrape of asphalt on the victim’s knees – that in light his swift admission that he is suspect, appears highly incriminating. Suddenly, the first person narrator of the novel is unreliable. The reader cannot tell if he is telling the truth about what happened or not. What remains to be seen, and has the reader turning the pages, is what kind of unreliable narrator this particular character will be. Is he the rapist or simply a suspect? Does he know what happened to Lindy or merely think he does?
The literary term ‘unreliable narrator,’ was introduced in the twentieth century by literary critic, Wayne C. Booth, but suspect narrators have been delighting readers for centuries, both in prose and poetry. As readers we very often embark on reading expecting that the main character, particularly in the first person, will tell us a truthful story and be our guide through the events to follow, but what fun ensues when that proves not to be the case.
Here are five of my favorites:
Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
In one of the first novels written in English, published in 1722, Moll tells the story of her life with charm, wit and a clear desire to put the happiest gloss on her less than upstanding character. Moll is a prostitute, a thief and a con artist whose story takes us in and out of Newgate prison and across the Atlantic and back again. Moll’s form of unreliability is comedic and her balancing of the truths of her actions and self-justification are at the heart of the novel’s enduring success.
My Last Duchess by Robert Browning
Browning’s poem, written in 1842, takes the form of a monologue ‘spoken’ by a sixteenth century Duke showing his art collection to an emissary who is there to arrange the Duke’s next marriage. They stop at the portrait of the Duke’s last wife and the reader gradually realizes that the Duke is directly responsible for his young wife’s death. Deliciously creepy!
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
Published in 1926, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Christie’s most famous Hercule Poirot novels, particularly notable because her narrator, Dr James Sheppard proves to be unreliable. Although acting in the role of assistant and confident to Monsieur Poirot, Dr Sheppard is not honest in his account of events around the murder, building up to one of the most surprising plot twists in detective fiction. I’m thinking I’m ready to read it again…
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Is Scout a reliable witness to the trial of Tom Robinson for the rape of Mayella Ewell in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama? Combining a child’s view of events and her narrator’s interpretation of her memories as an adult, Harper Lee’s classic novel, published in 1960, skillfully uses the perspective of youth to explore her story. The reader must interpret the ‘truth’ of the story, reading between the lines of what Scout sees, what she understands and what she believes to be true. Scout is not deliberately unreliable as a narrator, but she is unreliable just the same.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Published in 2015, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train is narrated by Rachel whose unhappiness and quickly apparent drinking problems lead the reader to doubt her veracity. When a girl that Rachel has been watching from the train disappears and we learn that Rachel was on her street that night but cannot remember what happened there, even our narrator herself isn’t sure about the truthof her own role in the ensuing police investigation. Rachel’s emerging story casts doubt upon doubt about her ability to find the truth about her own and others behavior. This is my book club’s pick to read this month. I liked it and enjoyed Rachel’s unreliability but I’m not sure it got the thumbs up across the group.