At first, there is a sense of, “what?…wait!” Something a character says, perhaps, that contradicts the words of the narrator. Maybe you suddenly realize that the narrator has never actually been in the green bedroom, or that she doesn’t speak unless her husband is there. Out of loyalty or expediency, we readers tend to accept our narrator’s version of events. But sometimes the author reveals hints that the narrator’s perspective may be a little…off. Once the suspicion is planted, the story becomes a wild thing, just as likely to conjure psychic terror as it is to end in benign misunderstanding. Here are three adult books with unreliable narrator that will appeal to teen readers.
One of the most popular books of 2015 was Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. What begins as a tale about a lonely woman who is mesmerized by young lovers seen daily as she passes by on her commuter train grows into an impossible series of coincidences and misunderstandings. Every character in the book is suspect. Readers come to realize that at least one person is lying, at least one person is delusional, and at least a couple of characters are dangerously violent. Hawkins deftly twists the readers’ loyalties, alternating between three unreliable narrators.
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is another 2015 thriller that plays with multiple versions of reality. As the book begins, eight year-old Merry tells of the gradual deterioration of her older sister, Marjorie. As Marjorie’s actions become dangerous, her father calls in an exorcist. And the whole sordid experience is being recorded for a reality television show. Readers have no reason to doubt Merry, but a grand twist in time allows us to meet the future Merry, a blogger specializing in the canon of the supernatural. We realize that something doesn’t jive here.
Another skillful use of the unreliable narrator is found in Jennifer duBois’s 2013 novel, Cartwheel. The events of the book are tightly parallel with the story of Amanda Knox, an American girl accused of killing her roommate in Italy in 2007. Most unsettling about the true case is the disconnect between Amanda’s wholesome demeanor and the horrible details of the murder. This is captured by duBois in Cartwheel, in which the fictitious Lily Hayes turns a cartwheel while being held for questioning.
Along the same lines, the 2016 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults Committee created an excellent list entitled, “Unreliable Narrators: Don’t Believe a Word.” Some highlights, with annotations from the committee:
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Lia and Cassie have been friends and competitors over who can be the skinniest. Cassie wins the contest, but now Lia has to find her way without losing her own life. Wintergirls also appeared on the 2010 Best Books for Young Adults, Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers, and the Teen Top Ten.
Invisible by Pete Hautman
Doug and his best friend Andy are an unlikely pair – Doug is a loner and Andy is a popular football player – but as long as they don’t talk about what happened at the Tuttle Place, their friendship will remain intact.
Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
Andrew Winston Winters feels as though his life is torn in two. Is he rage filled Drew or lonely quiet Win? Which part of him will win? Charm & Strange is also the winner of the 2014 Morris Award.
— Diane Colson, currently reading an advanced readers’ copy of Whisper to Me by Nick Lake