The Unreliable Narrator
I’m quite fond of this device, though I admit that in its simplest form (“and then I woke up and it was all a dream”) it has been done to death. No, I didn’t think Agatha Christie was cheating in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I enjoyed the double-impostor twist of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree with its narrator who misleads us delightfully by telling the truth… just, not all the truth. So I was pleased to see a new twist on this in one of the fantasy novels I’ve been reading via Kindle Unlimited, and I’ve made a note of the author for further reading.
In W.B. McKay’s Bound by Faerie the narrator is hired to retrieve a magical artifact. She’s warned in advance:
Today, however, we’d gotten word that Lou was in possession of a heavily enchanted necklace. I hadn’t been given any particulars about its power, just a strict warning not to put it on and a description.
Of course she puts it on – what do you think? It’s part of the rules of the game, isn’t it? Psyche brings in a lamp to gaze on Cupid, Beauty picks up the only remaining spindle in the kingdom, and McKay’s Sophie Morrigan puts on the necklace, part of whose enchantment is the power to lure her into doing exactly that.
The fun is what comes after, as we see how it sneaks around and subverts her conscious mind. Immediately after putting on the necklace she escapes from the dragon’s den:
I had a moment to think, The necklace!, before I felt it thump against my chest. I didn’t remember putting it on…
When a friend offers to help, she evades the offer:
“I’d be happy to give you a ride into the office so you can return that necklace.”
My hand jumped up to the gold around my neck. I tucked it under the collar of the sweatshirt. This was the second time he’d mentioned me returning the necklace. “I can handle it myself.”
Even when she looks in the mirror, she can’t keep her mind on the necklace:
I brushed down my shirt, like that would do anything at all, and gave myself another look. A glint of ruby caught my eye. The necklace did work with everything. My gaze drifted lower. Were boobs really that important in this equation? How much would he even look at my boobs anyway? Do heterosexual men like boobs?
If a friend comments on the necklace, she changes the subject without even thinking about it:
“That’s a nice necklace you’re wearing,” she observed.” What necklace? My hand touched the stones. Oh, right. Did she want my necklace?
“It’s all right. Are we going to be waiting much longer?”
Her mind starts rewriting history:
Lou disappearing into Faerie with the necklace had been quite a surprise. It had been so strange finding his cave empty like that—no necklace, no Lou, not even his hoard.
My favorite part is where the folks who hired her to retrieve the necklace begin demanding to see it, and the contradictions start crashing into one another:
My phone chirped three times in quick succession. It was my boss, Hammond, asking where I was with the necklace. Confusion knitted my brow. I could have sworn I told him that it had been lost. My hand drifted up to my neck and I felt the cool touch of gold. No, that wasn’t right. I hadn’t gotten around to turning it in yet. I was busy with getting the book. Be there in 30, I tapped out. I dropped my phone on the couch and went back to my book.
A couple of hours of reading, and:
My phone chirped, announcing a text message.
Art: I don’t know what game you’re playing, but Hammond is about to have a stroke. You need to get that necklace down to MOD, now.
Me: I’m on my way.
I rolled my eyes. “So dramatic.” Another few pages…
She gets a call from her friend warning her that she’s likely to get fired if she doesn’t show up – it’s been hours now:
“You know I only care because I don’t want you to get fired, right?”
“I know, Art. I appreciate that. I’ll be there. Don’t worry.”
“Okay, see you then. Bye.”
“Bye.” I dropped the phone on the couch and picked up the book again.
Okay – that’s more than enough to give you the flavor. There’s plenty more going on in the book, and I’m definitely going to pick up the sequel next time I’m in the mood for fantasy. It’s the start of a seven-book series, so there’s room for a lot more entertainment and surprises in the future.
And, of course… being as low and dishonorable as any other writer… I’m already thinking What could I do with this idea? How come I’ve never used an unreliable narrator? What would my gimmick be?
I can promise you that the next book in the series I’m currently writing will not feature an enchanted MacGuffin that causes the narrator to hang on to it desperately while simultaneously thinking that she never acquired it. But there are so many other ways to pull it off…
What have you done with an unreliable narrator?
Or what would you like to do?