Twice yesterday I found myself thinking about the unreliable narrator, that irritating and yet fascinating storyteller whose word you can just never quite trust. It started while I was discussing a short story, The Fishing-Boat Picture by Alan Sillitoe, with a friend over morning coffee. It was one that I used with first year undergraduates to introduce the concept of a writer deliberately misleading the reader at least on a first or surface reading. The thing about Sillitoe’s narrator, Harry, is that it isn’t just the reader he is misleading but also himself because to acknowledge the truth would mean reassessing his own nature and the part that he played in the downfall of his marriage. By the end of the story, if you’ve caught on to what Sillitoe is doing, you know more of the truth of his life than he does – possibly. What does Harry realise in that last moment?
Then, last night, I started William Boyd’s novel, Any Human Heart, which is our Monday Reading Group’s choice for January. Within a matter of pages it’s clear that I’m not going to be able to trust Logan as a narrator. Here he is, telling me that when he set out to write his journal,
I’m sure I vowed to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc, etc, and I think these pages will bear me out in that endeavour. I have sometimes behaved well and I have sometimes behaved less than well – but I have resisted all attempts to present myself in a better light.
Well, come on, how can I possibly believe a word he says after that protestation? I haven’t got very far yet with the novel but it does strike me that there may be a double layer of deception going on here, given that it is presented as if these journals have been edited by a third party, but I shall have to wait and see where that notion takes me.
This brought to mind a book that the same group read last year, Julian Barnes’ magnificent The Sense of an Ending. I seemed to spend the entire meeting insisting that I could trust a word that Tony said, partly because, as he continually pointed out, memory is not reliable and therefore while we might think we are giving an accurate account of events we are almost certainly embellishing or re-ordering to some extant, but also because I thought he protested too much and was using the capricious nature of memory as an excuse behind which to hide his deliberate rearrangement of past happenings.
So, three separate narrators on whom I cannot rely and what then caught my attention is that they are all men. Now I promise you, I am not trying to be sexist here, but when I tried to think of female narrators that I could not trust I was stumped. This may be, of course, a lack of breadth of reading on my part, but I would be really interested to know if any of you have come across women being used by a writer in this way. Surely there must be some.