Three good books with unreliable narrators (A post that’s not about my kids? It’s like I don’t even know who I am anymore!)

I was just clicking back and forth between facebook and twitter, but no one was really pouring any adulation on me, so it got a little boring. Then I remembered I’d considered writing a post about “My Summer Reading” and, oh look, it’s not even 2 AM yet! I still have lots of time before I go to bed! And that is how this post came to be. Or is about to come to be.


I read Room, by Emma Donoghue, right before Henry turned five this summer, and since the book’s narrator also turns five at the beginning of the book, it was easy to relate to the character. This is very dark subject matter–it’s about a kid, but definitely not meant for kids. Five-year-old Jack’s mother has been kidnapped and kept captive since before his birth, and for Jack the small room they’re being kept in is his whole world. Although a five-year-old couldn’t remember and recount the level of detail in the book, it’s easy to suspend disbelief, especially since the narrative voice is  pitch-perfect: I had no trouble believing that a bright, verbally-gifted kid would talk as Jack does. And the ways he deals with challenges, his tantrums and the ways he’s assuaged, all rang true to a five-year-old’s psychology (and felt like my interactions with Henry). His mom’s actions and reactions were very plausible and interesting, as well. It’s a sympathetic, compelling story.

I did have one quibble, not with the book but with its author. In the extra material (offered at the back of the book, for book groups) she says that as she researched the book, she was appalled to learn how many prisoners are in solitary confinement–an opinion she also gave to a character in the book. Although I agree that our prison systems almost certainly need reform (although I have no idea what the solutions are) I thought it was naive to conflate the plight of someone kidnapped with that of a convict–as though we put prisoners in solitary confinement just for fun, to be cruel and unusual. I would guess solitary confinement is usually a last resort, used to protect other prisoners when convicts have proven themselves too dangerous to be around anyone. (And does Donoghue not think the bad guy in her own book deserves that degree of punishment?)

Anyway, this is a minor quibble, and I did think this was an excellent book.

Next I read Anne Perry’s The Face of a Stranger, the first of her William Monk series. Monk is a detective in 1880s England who gets amnesia, but conceals it to avoid losing his job, and  has to start fresh solving a case he’d been working on before his accident. Anne Perry’s pacing is a little slow, but the slowness adds to the tone of the book, and makes it feel like it actually could have been written in the Victorian era. And I thought the premise was intriguing; it was driving me crazy that Monk wouldn’t admit to anyone that he couldn’t remember who he was. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series–I might actually have to buy them, since they’re always checked out at the library.

The third book I read recently that had an unreliable narrator is Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork. In this case the 17-year-old narrator is somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism/Asperger’s spectrum. I wouldn’t recommend this book for younger teens, since it does talk about sex–the character talks about it, as he does about other topics, very literally and analytically–but it’s also a very moral book. And Marcelo has a delightful, very believable, distinctive voice. I enjoyed this book a great deal. And after I finished it I realized I had unintentionally read three books in a row in which the reader knows lots of things that the main character doesn’t know, and watches the character figure them out, as the reader also learns more.  I find these to be fun, fascinating premises.

So, that’s “My Summer Reading!” (P.S. I did read some other books this summer. But they had reliable narrators.)

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9 Responses to Three good books with unreliable narrators (A post that’s not about my kids? It’s like I don’t even know who I am anymore!)

  1. Jason says:

    …and yet you worked in the parts about Henry. Brava Mama!

  2. Rachel says:

    I liked those William Monk books, too. I thought they were well written, and read quite a few. Be aware that a few of them are going to be very hard to read as a mother with children. If you don’t like the way one of them is going, you may want to stop while you’re ahead and try another volume, because it will only get worse. I have a hard time abandoning books, but a couple of these I wish I’d never read. My two cents. 🙂

  3. Erin says:

    I have borrowed Room from the library two different times, only to take it back to the library both times unread. Knowing that it is about a five year old and his mother being held captive just plays to my neuroses, I think, and it makes me scared to read it. We’ll see if third time’s a charm!

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