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Put Your Trust in an Unreliable Narrator

2013 December 18
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photo attributed to Flickr user w00kie

photo attributed to Flickr user w00kie

Some of my favorite novels are those where the narrator is unreliable.  This is usually  due to an impaired mental state like schizophrenia or amnesia.  Whatever the case, unreliable narrators don’t usually present themselves right away, but when they do they seem to turn the novel you are reading upside down–and I love it when that happens!  Reading becomes exciting, because you realize that you don’t know where the story is going and you have to decide: are you going to risk it and put your trust in your narrator or are you going to be suspicious of him or her all the way to the last page?

There has been a bit of buzz about unreliable narrators recently.  Teen Librarian Toolbox recently posted about unreliable narrators, inspired by reading Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead.  Beth Revis posted a cool look at why she thinks unreliable narrators are so popular right now and why she chose to make her main character in Across the Universe unreliable.  Finally, check out this post on Stacked that talks about the mini-trend of amnesia fiction.  Generally if your main character has amnesia, there is something unreliable about them; they are missing some key parts of their memory that would definitely make the mystery easier to solve.

If you’re interested in taking a chance with an unreliable narrator, then check out the list of titles I compiled below.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Unreliable narrators with impaired mental states:

maradyerGoing BovineLiarinvisibleScowlerspeak17andGone

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin

This is my favorite unreliable narrator to date– I was blown away by this novel! Mara Dyer’s PTSD surrounding the death of three former friends, is causing her to question her basic reality. She is plagued by nightmares and hallucinations.  Mara is determined to figure out what happened, even if that means confronting the fact that she may be the killer.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray (2010 Printz Winner)

Cameron has been diagnosed with mad cow disease; a disease that slowly eats away at the brain.  Cameron is determined to live up his final days and beat the disease, so of course he takes off on a road trip to defeat an evil scientist with a cute punk girl who might be an angel and a talking garden gnome.

Liar by Justine Larbalestier (2010 Best Books for Young Adults)

Micah is a compulsive liar, and when a boy she’s been having a secret relationship with winds up murdered, Micah’s story is filled with twists and turns that leaves readers questioning whether or not to believe this dishonest narrator.  It’s no wonder why Micah is a suspect!

Invisible by Pete Hautman (2006 Best Books for Young Adults)

Doug and Andy are best friends, but a very unlikely pair.  Doug is a weird guy who is bullied and a self proclaimed nerd. Andy is the perfect jock and popular.  As Doug gets into more and more trouble and shows signs of mental instability, the reader begins to question the friendship and whether or not it is real.

Scowler by Daniel Kraus

This dark novel centers on Ry, who is haunted by his father who was sent to jail for the horrible abuse he inflicted on Ry’s family. During a meteor shower, Ry’s dad breaks free and returns to the family farm.  What follows is a horrifying story of the meteor shower’s affect on the family and their disturbing downfall.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000 Printz Honor Book, 2000 Top Ten Books for Young Adults, 2003 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)

Melinda experienced a traumatic event at a end of the summer party.  Now, starting her freshmen year, Melinda is an outcast because she broke up the party when she called the police but will not speak about what happened–in fact she has a hard time speaking at all…

17 and Gone by Nova Ren Suma

Lauren believes that she is the only one that can save the missing girls–the ones that only she can see standing before her.  As Lauren becomes obsessed with finding the girls, especially seventeen-year-old Abby, her reality begins to break down and readers question what to believe.


Unreliable narrators with amnesia:

ConjuredadorationofjennafoxWhite Cat - whitewashinghysteriaunrememberedDon'tTurnAroundanotherlittlepiece

Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst

Recently published, this novel centers on Eve who has been placed in witness protection but has no memory as to what she witnessed.  Readers must decide to believe what Eve has started to remember, dream about, and the visions she is experiencing–even if they seem to be beyond reality.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (2009 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults, 2009 Best Books for Young Adults, 2010 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults

After waking up from a coma, Jenna has almost no memory of her life up until the moment she opens her eyes.  As she works hard to reclaim her memories, aided by home movies, Jenna finds that she has more questions than confirmations of who she is.

White Cat by Holly Black (2011 Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults, 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults)

With a brother who has the ability to remove and alter memories, Cassel suspects that he is the victim of his brother’s work when he finds that he has been having strange dreams involving a white cat that also shows up in his reality.  What Cassel suspects, however, is nothing compared to the truth that is revealed in this supernatural novel set in a world where people have the ability to effect a wide range of things like emotions, memories, and even luck with the touch of a hand.

Hysteria by Megan Miranda

Mallory cannot remember what happened the night she killed her boyfriend, but she was not arrested or even suspected by the police.  However, everyone is suspicious of Mallory and she decides to leave her town to attend prep school.  Her haunted dreams follow her, as does murder.  When a student is found dead, Mallory is a prime suspect and slowly things become unraveled as Mallory learns the truth about what happened on the night her boyfriend died.

Unremembered by Jessica Brody

Violet is the only survivor of a plane crash, but with no injuries and no memories, readers suspect that Violet is not completely human.

Don’t Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon

Noa wakes up on an operating table with no memories of the past couple of weeks and an incision on her chest. Barely escaping, Noa taps her hacking skills to reconnect with fellow hacker Peter.  Together they stumble upon a secret that has them both fighting for their lives.

Another Little Piece by Kate Karyus Quinn

Annaliese has been missing and presumed dead for a year.  So, when she shows up with no memory of what happened to her or of her life at all, she tries to be put together what happened to her.  As memories start to return, Annaliese discovers the terrible truth and realizes that she has no choice as to the monster she has become.

 –Colleen Seisser, currently reading Relic by Renee Collins

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6 Responses
  1. Grace DKL permalink
    December 18, 2013

    I was happy to see Liar on this list–it’s one of my favorite books. But I feel that Code Name Verity ought to be there as well.

    • Megan permalink
      June 8, 2014

      I totally agree! Code Name Verity is probably my favorite book with an unreliable narrator. (Also, I know it’s an adult novel, but Gone Girl is the epitome of unreliable narration.)

      • Colleen Seisser permalink
        June 9, 2014

        Good suggestion Megan! Even though it is published for adult readers, Gone Girl, is an excellent example of an unreliable narrator. Also, it has a lot of crossover appeal for older teen readers, so one we should definitely tell people about!

  2. Colleen Seisser permalink
    December 18, 2013

    Thanks Grace!!! That is a great recommendation to add to the list! I loved Liar too :)

  3. December 26, 2013

    I might add Tangerine by Edward Bloor. Paul is legally blind, but he doesn’t know why. The book is about his discovery of the truth behind the accident that took his eye sight.

  4. Colleen Seisser permalink
    December 26, 2013

    Thanks Michelle! That is an excellent recommendation– definitely an unreliable narrator!

Comments are closed.