My top five unreliable narrators in fiction

1) Grace Marks in Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Femme fatale or victim of circumstance? Innocent or a cold-blooded killer?

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers, and Grace Marks is my favourite unreliable narrator in fiction. Alias Grace is based on the true story of one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840s, having been convicted of murder at the age of 16.

The actual case was sensationalised in the newspapers. Grace was reported as being ‘uncommonly pretty’; her employer and housekeeper were having an affair; and Grace and her fellow-servant were also assumed to be having an affair.

In Atwood’s fictional account, Grace claims to have no memory of the violent murders of her employer and housekeeper. Is she insane or lying? Or maybe she is unable to recall events accurately due to post-traumatic stress? She seems to be telling the truth (as she knows it) to her doctor, but she admits to making it ‘more interesting’ for him at times.

The reader never knows if Grace is guilty or innocent, and is left to judge how much of her narration is truthful.

2) The unnamed narrator in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

The unnamed narrator in Fight Club is immediately questionable as he suffers from impaired thought processes due to chronic insomnia. Our suspicions about his point of view deepen when he joins self-help group after self-help group and eventually finds himself in an underground fight club, which turns out to be a cult-like group that participates in terrorist activities. There’s a big twist at the end that makes us question everything the narrator has told us.

3) Amy (and Nick) in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Right from the start, the reader knows something is wrong in Gone Girl because the stories of the two narrators don’t match.

Beautiful Amy goes missing and her husband Nick is suspected in her disappearance.

The first half of the book is told in first person, alternately, by both Nick and Amy. Nick’s point of view is from the present, while Amy’s perspective is given via journal entries. Amy’s account of their marriage makes her seem happy and easy to live with, and Nick aggressive. Nick’s story, on the other hand, depicts Amy as anti-social, demanding and resentful. Did Nick murder Amy? Or is he innocent and lacking in remorse simply because he is relieved to be free of her?

The competing narration and the mystery of their marriage is intriguing enough. But then — the big twist — the second half of the novel takes a different turn, and Flynn reveals that Amy and Nick are both unreliable narrators and that important information has been withheld from the reader.

4) Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

An unreliable narrator for many reasons. The Great Gatsby is a series of one-sided reminiscences of experiences based on Nick Carraway’s perception, opinions and thoughts about his mysterious millionaire next-door neighbour, Jay Gatsby.

Nick contradicts himself, a lot of alcohol is consumed, there are gaps in his memory, his behavior is inconsistent, and his moral conflict seems to distort his judgements — all of which leaves the reader questioning the truth of events recalled.

5) Christine Lucas in Before I Go to Sleep by S.J Watson

Christine Lucas, the narrator in Before I Go to Sleep is unreliable because she is suffering from a rare form of amnesia that wipes her near-term memory every time she falls asleep. Such a clever premise! This book sucked me in completely.

Every morning Christine wakes unable to recall what happened the day before. Her doctor suggests she keep a journal, which she reads every morning. Clues in her journal make Christine suspect that her husband — the only person she can trust — has been lying to her, and her life may be in danger.


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