Saturday, January 8, 2011

Unreliable narrators

I just finished reading Justine Larbalestier's Liar, and I was impressed with its structure. I'll try not to be too spoiler-y here, but even though I'm not going to discuss the specifics of the plot, I will discuss some of the novel's elements, which some may find to be telling too much. And I will do the same for Chris Lynch's Inexcusable, also discussed below.

Liar's narrator admits to being a liar. Therefore, we're on alert from page 1 that our narrator may be unreliable, although she claims that this time, she's telling the truth. But as the book progresses, she changes her story, admitting to some lies and declaring that what comes next is the real truth.

The plot unfolds in layers, layers that peel back to reveal more and more secrets. Between the peeling layers and the flashbacks, it's a complex story (in her Acknowledgments, the author credits Scrivener for helping her to keep it all straight). The suspense, the interweaving of the layers, and the strong imagery combine to make this an excellent read overall.

Best of all, I like that at the end, we're left with two (at least) possible interpretations of what happened. Either version is supportable by the information included in the text--and though I tend to favor one interpretation, I can't dismiss any reader who would choose the other. It's reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw in that respect.

I found myself comparing this book with Inexcusable (my go-to example for unreliable narrators). In Inexcusable, we don't realize at first that the narrator is unreliable, but we begin to have a hint or two, and then by the end, our view of events is totally different from the narrator's view. In Inexcusable, our confusion comes when the narrator's unreliability is revealed, but we reorient ourselves, and at the end we know what really happened. In Liar, we can't be sure what really happened; we know the narrator has lied at least some of the time, but we don't know exactly when. But we can assemble the clues and build a convincing case. It's not ambiguity just for the sake of being cute or clever; the writer doesn't leave us hanging just because she painted herself into a corner. Rather, we're shown a pattern with a couple of possible interpretations and asked to choose which one we buy into. In that way, it's almost like reading two books at once.

All three of the books mentioned in this post are good examples of how to play with the reliability of narrators and the building of suspense.

Source of Liar and Inexcusable: bought
Source of The Turn of the Screw: school copy, read way back when

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