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Artful Artifice: 10 Brain-Bending Novels with Unreliable Narrators

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • September 06, 2022

An unreliable narrator is a great basis for a story with some major plot twists. These are narratives told from the point-of-view of someone who either can't or won't provide a complete or accurate account of what's happening. They may be compulsive liars, addled addicts, or young children. Sometimes they're people with a trait that inhibits their ability to glean the truth. Here are ten great reads that will have you wondering what is really happening.

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Author Roxane Gay called this keen satire "an incisive and necessary" debut. Drawing comparisons to Ralph Ellison, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Nabakov, the story centers on a Black father and his biracial son. Like any parent, our narrator just wants the best for his child, even if it means turning him white.

The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

From People magazine: "A stunningly clever thriller made doubly suspenseful by not one, but two unreliable narrators." Rose and Fern are twin sisters, but they see the world very differently from one another. They are both haunted by shadowy secrets from their past. But whose account can you trust?

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

The year is 1954. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, have come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate the disappearance of a patient. As a killer hurricane bears down on them, they begin to realize that nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is what it seems.

Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Mary B. Addison killed a baby. Allegedly. She didn't say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: a white baby had died while under the care of a churchgoing black woman and her nine-year-old daughter.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

In a Tokyo suburb, a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife's missing cat—and then for his wife as well—in a netherworld beneath the city's placid surface. Gripping, prophetic, and suffused with comedy and menace, this is an astonishingly imaginative detective story.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

It's 2015 and a confused old woman lies in a bed. She forgets things she should know, like what year it is. But the memories she does have conflict with one another. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but can't make sense of human emotions. This is the story of a boy with autism who sets out to solve the murder of a neighbor's dog.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

A provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, and autonomy and fate. Janina has developed a reputation as a crank and a recluse. As a string of strange deaths begin happening in her remote Polish village, she inserts herself into the investigation.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

From the winner of the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, this is the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. As past and present confuse, she relives scenes of Japan's devastation in the wake of World War II.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

After his ex drops off the kids and fails to return, Toby Fleishman has a lot to juggle. As he tries to figure out what happened to her, he is forced to consider what happened to his marriage and the possibility that he might not have seen things all that clearly in the first place.

Books with unreliable narrators are the literary equivalent of the sand shifting under our feet. They are, at once, both bewildering and thrilling. Take a wild ride with one of these mysterious, twisty tales.

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