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5 top unreliable narrators, as picked by Nuala Ellwood

Nuala Ellwood, debut author of My Sister’s Bones, picks five of her favourite novels with unreliable narrators.

best unreliable narratorsJoe in You by Caroline Kepnes

Narrated in the second person by bookstore worker Joe, You is a twisted love letter from the warped perspective of an obsessive stalker to the object of his affections, a female writer who he meets in the bookstore. His voice is pitch perfect and almost scattergun in its unpredictability and rage. The second person lends an intimacy to his words, so much so that, chillingly, it feels like he is whispering them in your ear. One of my favourite thrillers in recent years.

best unreliable narratorsLydia in Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

From the haunting first sentence – “My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle” – to the horrifying denouement, the chillingly composed voice of narrator Lydia Fitzsimons draws the reader into her twisted world so convincingly we almost feel complicit in her evil doings. A rich tale of murder and obsession with a creepy house that rivals Manderley as a backdrop, this novel, and its narrator, clings to the skin long after the last page is turned.

best unreliable narratorsIsabel and Nina in Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

One of my all-time favourite novels, Talking to the Dead explores sibling bonds, childhood violence and unreliable memory via the dual perspectives of two estranged sisters. The story takes place in a remote Sussex farmhouse at the height of an oppressively hot summer where the two sisters are reunited. Slowly we come to realise that all is not as it seems; one or both of them may have committed a terrible crime when they were children and yet each of them manages to convince the reader that the other is to blame. Through their haunting testimonies, Dunmore, who sadly passed away this year, created voices with an understated menace that bled through the pages.

best unreliable narratorsJack in Room by Emma Donoghue

This is an unreliable narrator with a difference. The account given is not evil or intended to mislead but is, instead, the strange and poignant view of a child held in a monstrous situation. Room tells the story of a mother and child being held in a secured shed at the bottom of their psychopathic captor’s garden. The child, Jack, has never known life outside of the ‘room’ and his voice is not only that of an ordinary five-year-old but also an alien being for whom fresh air and school and playmates are things that only exist in books and on TV. In Room, Donoghue creates a heartbreakingly honest voice in Jack as well as a whole new vocabulary that transforms the most mundane of objects – a wardrobe, a bath, a truck – into magical talismans imbued with hope.

best unreliable narratorsThe governess in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

A young governess becomes convinced that the two children in her care are talking to the ghosts of two former employees of the large house where she resides. But is this a traditional ghost story or an exploration into the psyche of a troubled young woman? This question is never truly resolved and this is why I love the novel so much and why I have returned to it again and again since first reading it as a teenager. I was drawn not only to its ambiguity but also to the young woman’s dogged insistence that what she is seeing is real and it sowed the seeds for what would become my first thriller, My Sister’s Bones. Like the governess in The Turn of the Screw, my protagonist, war reporter Kate, sees people that no one else can see and becomes convinced that something untoward is happening in the house next door. The Turn of the Screw is one of the rare books that have truly terrified me as a reader, not least the final scene where the young woman finds one of the children dead and in that moment the ghost disappears.

Who are your favourite unreliable narrators in crime fiction? Let us know in the comments below!

Nuala Ellwood, author of The Perfect Life
Nuala Ellwood, author of The Perfect Life
Nuala Ellwood

Nuala Ellwood is a Creative Writing Tutor at York St John University, and she lives in the city with her husband and son. She was chosen as one of the Observer‘s ‘New Faces of Fiction 2017’ for her first thriller, the bestselling My Sister’s Bones. Her next thriller The Day of the Accident will be published in 2018.

Follow Nuala on Twitter.

1 Comment

    Dr Shepherd in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. I read this many moons ago and could not believe it when that really nice, helpful narrator turned out to be …….

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