The best unreliable narrator books

8 authors have picked their favorite books about unreliable narrators and why they recommend each book.

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Wieland

By Charles Brockden Brown,

Book cover of Wieland

Charles Brockden Brown is the Founding Father of American gothic writing and Wieland is his weirdest but most readable novel. Written just after the Adams administration had banned speech criticizing the government, Wieland explores the dangers of uncontrolled speech and the threat of shadowy interlopers. The novel is narrated by Clara Wieland, whose family are plagued by increasingly threatening disembodied voices after the arrival of mysterious itinerant Frank Carwin. This domestic thriller not only showcases the development of the unreliable narrator but also questions the stability of the family and the nation in the early US.

Who am I?

I’m a lecturer at the University of Liverpool who researches 19th century American literature. A year studying in central Pennsylvania sparked my interest in early US writing and led me to a PhD in the subject. I’m fascinated in how American literature of this period both upholds and challenges the founding myths of the nation - liberty, egalitarianism, progress – and how new genres, such as science fiction and the gothic, develop over the century.


I wrote...

Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction

By Hannah Murray,

Book cover of Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction

What is my book about?

In Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction, Hannah Lauren Murray shows that early US authors repeatedly imagined lost, challenged and negated white citizenship in the new nation. Reading canonical and lesser-known writers including Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville, Murray argues that white characters on the borders of life and death were liminal presences that disturbed prescriptions of racial belonging in the early US. Fears of losing whiteness were routinely channelled through the language of liminality, in a precursor to today’s white anxieties of marginalisation and minoritisation.

Notes on a Scandal

By Zoe Heller,

Book cover of Notes on a Scandal

A real classic, leaving Heller fans in frustration, longing for her to match this achievement. The rank stupidity of the teacher, Sheba’s, affair with a perfectly mundane male pupil – while she has a marriage and childrenis perversely enjoyable. But it’s the older female narrator’s warped obsession with Sheba, her desire to control her, to possess her life, that forms the really fascinating and highly ill-advised relationship. 


Who am I?

I have written seven novels, and each time, I seem drawn to some aspect of illicit or transgressive human behaviour. I find it fascinating to see what goes on beneath the surface – the tiny clues that emerge, the betrayals of others and ourselves. I bought a copy of Lolita from my local bookshop when I was a teenager, and, deeply disturbing though that novel is, I think its themes and prose influenced me, as they have so many authors. In our imperfect lives, there’s also a sense of Schadenfreude to be had as a reader when we read about other people’s terrible mistakes.


I wrote...

The Seduction: An Addictive New Story of Desire and Obsession from the Bestselling Author of Sleep with Me

By Joanna Briscoe,

Book cover of The Seduction: An Addictive New Story of Desire and Obsession from the Bestselling Author of Sleep with Me

What is my book about?

Beth is relatively happily married, with one daughter and one stepson. She lives beside a shadowy stretch of canal by Camden Lock in London. Troubled by her past and the mother who rejected her, she starts to see a therapist, Dr. Tamara Bywater. Dr. Bywater – soothing, skilled, quietly charismatic – appears to help her, but gradually and unexpectedly she starts insinuating herself into Beth’s mind – and into her life. She is not what she seems at all. 

The Replacement Wife

By Darby Kane,

Book cover of The Replacement Wife

After reading Darby Kane’s Pretty Little Wife, I knew I had to pick up The Replacement Wife, and boy, am I glad I did. The main character in this book is also a mom and wife, but unlike a lot of other domestic thrillers, Elisa Wright is happy with her life. The problem isn’t her suspiciously-acting husband, but her brother-in-law, who was going to marry her good friend…until that friend went missing. The dips and swerves in this book had me convinced I knew what was going to come next, but I did not! I’ll admit, I do love an unreliable narrator, but you’ve got to find a way to make me believe and relate, and Kane turned that trope upside down and spun it around. 


Who am I?

I’ve always loved books about the bad choices good people make, or the good choices bad people make. I like twists and turns and ugly crying and serious “wtf” moments. Books that are like punches to the gut make me swoon. Dig up the dirt. Find the worms. Gnash your teeth, rend your garments, regret your choices and find new ways to love. Those are my favorite stories to read, but also to write. I write romance (Megan Hart), thrillers (Mina Hardy), and horror (Megan E. Hart), but to me, those different genres are all similar. Lots of screaming!


I wrote...

After All I've Done

By Mina Hardy,

Book cover of After All I've Done

What is my book about?

She's lost her best friend, her husband--and possibly, her mind. An accident left Diana Sparrow badly injured and missing a few months of her memory. She's started having recurring nightmares about the night of the accident. Maybe she hit something. Or someone.

Her former best friend Val has been sleeping with Diana's husband, but she might find some comfort in Cole Pelham. The closer they become, the more Diana begins to wonder what really happened that night – and how Cole might be connected. Worse, it seems everyone else could be involved, too. As her life unravels thread by thread and the dreams become too real to ignore, Diana will have to face the unthinkable – and do the unforgivable.

The Demon

By Hubert Selby Jr.,

Book cover of The Demon

The narration is completely devoted to the worldview of main character Harry White. A man who climbs the ladder of corporate and social America thanks to unnatural drives inside him both dedicated to achieving his success and predicated ultimately to securing his eventual self-destruction. The demon is inside Harry White and it is the American dream. An extraordinary novel from an extraordinary writer who had already written himself into the annals of American literature with such classics as Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Room. The Demon in my view is Selby Jr.’s most personal and impersonal work.


Who am I?

I am a comic book writer, published by Marvel and DC Comics, turned novelist. I enjoy getting inside the heads of my characters until they become entities of their own, with their own voices and actions. At that point I’m merely the facilitator; an interested spectator with a keyboard. Maybe, one whose prose shows a visual flair. Sometimes, I hear competing voices in my head, rather like the warring personas that feature in my debut novel GoodCopBadCop, but I don’t like to play favourites. 


I wrote...

GoodCopBadCop

By Jim Alexander,

Book cover of GoodCopBadCop

What is my book about?

GoodCopBadCop is a crime novel with a twist. It is a modern crime take on Jekyll and Hyde where both ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’ are the same person. This is not a story about a good man turned bad, or a bad man turned good. Both good and bad arrived at the same time.

As we delve deeper into the murky world of organised crime, Good Cop and Bad Cop in turn give the reader the benefit of their uniquely skewered perspective. With GoodCopBadCop you have two narrators for the price of one. This is Book one of a trilogy, the sequel (Good Cop) was published in 2021 and book no 3 (Bad Cop) is in development.

The Innocence Treatment

By Ari Goelman,

Book cover of The Innocence Treatment

From the get-go the reader is introduced to Lauren Fielding, a teenager living with a condition that makes her believe everything she is told. When the opportunity for her to surgically correct this comes up, she takes it and sets much of the plot in motion. What I love is the narrative style; a set of journal entries, scenes, and supporting materials which serve to present the events as Lauren and the people around her see it. This is a classic coming-of-age speculative fiction story with sprinkles of a possibly unreliable narrator, leaving the reader to follow along with the events and create their own conclusions about what is happening. Laura and the pacing her story provides are both memorable and noteworthy.


Who am I?

When I was little I used to seek out stories that featured strong female characters—especially in genre fiction. This proved to be quite difficult, even as I enlisted my entire family to help in the search. Because of this, ensuring that each of my own works feature this is a must. I am an author, artist, and podcast host who focuses on understanding the importance of story elements. I am an active martial artist, have a degree in creative writing from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and often get mesmerized by the process of creating comics and music. I hope you enjoy these recommendations as much as I did.


I wrote...

Violent Skies

By T.J. Lockwood,

Book cover of Violent Skies

What is my book about?

Violent Skies is one story in a series of books meant to be read in any order. Each tale features a woman on a journey to survive in a world struggling to keep balance with both its population on the ground and in the sky. 

In a world overstretched in population and resources, the skies were meant to be the greatest beacon for innovation and freedom. The flying cities were constructed in a time of need, driven by hope and fuelled by ambition. The end results, however, cast an unintentional shadow upon those still making a home below. This is the story of a wanderer named Wallflower, a package named Jace and their journey to confront the echoes of mankind’s past.

The Situation and the Story

By Vivian Gornick,

Book cover of The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

Sometimes I need a book that will inspire me not to continue writing, but to start; kinda like when I binge watch YouTube book talks—that’s the feeling this book brings over me—inspired. It’s a book that helps me write anything because I’m a person who struggles with—yet craves the ability to— strip a piece as bare as possible. Strip a story of its fluff and dissect its roots. I need to know what to save for later, and Gornick expressing the difference between situation and story is something I always go back to in order to help declutter my work. 


Who am I?

As a person who reads solely for pleasure regardless of research, I make it a mission while writing to read books I actually enjoy on topics I wanna learn more about. I chose the books on this list because I’m also a person who reads multiple books at once in various genres, it keeps me honest; aware of holes and discrepancies in my own work and pushes me towards some semblance of completion. All the writers on this list do multiple things at once and I admire their skill and risk in coupling creativity with clarity.


I wrote...

The Collection Plate: Poems

By Kendra Allen,

Book cover of The Collection Plate: Poems

What is my book about?

Looping exultantly through the overlapping experiences of girlhood, Blackness, sex, and personhood in America, award-winning essayist and poet Kendra Allen braids together personal narrative and cultural commentary, wrestling with the beauty and brutality to be found between mothers and daughters, young women and the world, Black bodies and white space, virginity and intrusion, prison and freedom, birth and death. Most of all, The Collection Plate explores both how we collect and erase the voices, lives, and innocence of underrepresented bodies--and behold their pleasure, pain, and possibility

Both formally exciting and a delight to read, The Collection Plate is a testament to Allen's place as the voice of a generation--and a witness to how we come into being in the twenty-first century.

Shadow & Claw

By Gene Wolfe,

Book cover of Shadow & Claw: The First Half of the Book of the New Sun

Crafting a dark, mysterious, and mood-driven enigma, Wolfe paints on a future canvas that is a combination of horror and discovery. Instead of flashing back, the novel seems to flash forward and is impactful for that alone. The main character doesn’t seem particularly special but he inherits a world and grows with the knowledge he attains.

It’s a work that leaves the reader wondering what just happened and why. Who is Severian and why is he special? Is he a man or a god? Does reality shape him or vice versa? Questions draw the reader in. I learned that it’s OK to have an unreliable narrator and not spell out all the answers. Instead, at times, let the reader decide what makes the most sense to them. When done right, it is magical.


Who am I?

I love dystopian science fantasy for the fact that it defines its own reality. The distant, magical aspects of every dystopian world create separation from the world we live in. The reader must cling to the characters, accept their motives and flaws, and finish the ride no matter where it goes. Not every plot needs to reform the status quo. Star Wars was the white-washed exception, and even that got dark at times. Combining flawed characters with flawed settings makes a novel compelling without the need for overly fantastic powers or world-altering events. Sure, I include those too, but futuristic dystopia offers plenty of challenges for simply surviving each day.


I wrote...

Psyker

By Rory Surtain,

Book cover of Psyker

What is my book about?

Fast-moving, edgy, and dark but not graphic or gratuitous, Psyker challenges readers to experience a far different reality from their own.

In the dark, distant future, densely populated hive cities rely on ancient technologies and rigid laws in order to endure. Paric Kilhaven, a scion of a noble House, navigates the sinister, alluring world of his city’s underhive, hoping to escape the fate of an outlawed psyker. Rival gangs and chaotic forces align against him in a fight for the planet’s survival.

The Rhetoric of Fiction

By Wayne C. Booth,

Book cover of The Rhetoric of Fiction

Almost without argument, the most in-depth and illuminating text on narration in fiction writing. This book is essential to the library of any serious author of fiction. Written from the perception of a successful academic career, it has credible detail explained with creative insights into the writing process. A worthy addition to a library for reference throughout a writing career.


Who am I?

I am an author of literary fiction and nonfiction on the creative writing process. My passion is to provide resources for writers who want to create stories as artful literature that will last. A few years ago, I created a website that contains all my fiction and non-fiction, a newsletter, a workshop, and a blog. The website has received over five million visits. I've published six novels, thirty-seven short stories, thirty essays, twenty-six interviews, and dozens of literary quizzes. My fiction has received over fifty+ awards. I’ve written and presented an online video course: Creating Literary Story with Thinkific. I continue to serve writers who are eager to improve.


I wrote...

The Art of Creating Story

By William H. Coles,

Book cover of The Art of Creating Story

What is my book about?

An educative volume with essays about the process of creating fictional stories; interviews with authors, editors, publishers,(including a Pulitzer Prize winner) on the writing process; and original short stories that illustrate concepts and techniques of storytelling in prose. Major topics include characterization, narration, character-based plotting, dialogue, drama, point of view, significance, and revision.

What Alice Forgot

By Liane Moriarty,

Book cover of What Alice Forgot

I love an unreliable narrator, and what’s more unreliable than a woman who has lost her memory? Liane Moriarty is masterful in giving the reader just enough information to follow along in the mystery with Alice as she tries to puzzle together what’s happened to her life in the ten years she’s “lost.” The story is thought-provoking in the best way, forcing the reader to think about how we all sometimes get stuck in a rut that might lead to a place we never really felt we chose. It made me wonder what me ten years ago would think if she suddenly woke up in my life today.


Who am I?

I’ve always been drawn to stories about underdogs overcoming adversity in different ways. There were times growing up when I didn’t feel like I fit in with my peers, and I’m sure that’s contributed to this fascination. There’s just something so satisfying about a character who others think is down for the count getting back up and winning. As a writer, my women’s fiction stories often center around characters who are in need of personal growth. Overcoming challenges and choosing a truer-to-self path are common themes. That’s why the books on this list found their way to my heart.


I wrote...

These Numbered Days

By Anna E. Collins,

Book cover of These Numbered Days

What is my book about?

When Annie Wolff’s ex-husband dies, she breaks her self-imposed exile and returns home to Washington to make sure her kids are okay. Annie hasn’t seen Grace and Connor in eight years, and with her in-laws making a bid to adopt them, this is her last chance to set things right. She only hopes the depression that once sent her running will remain in check.

As she’s drawn back into the lives of her now-teenage kids, Annie also stumbles into the path of Wic Dubray—the handsome woodworker who leases her a room. Now, Annie must navigate old memories, hostile relatives, her wavering mental health, and a growing fondness for Wic for a chance to win back her children, her life, and maybe find love.

Dead Girls Can't Tell Secrets

By Chelsea Ichaso,

Book cover of Dead Girls Can't Tell Secrets

Occasionally, there comes a book that is so compelling it demands to be read, breathless, from the very first page to the very last. Dead Girls Can’t Tell Secrets is one such book. This story contains so many twists it resembles a shockingly mangled slinky I delighted in attempting to untangle. I failed to predict the ending, but had fun guessing with every new bit of information the author revealed. It’s exactly what I look for in a young adult thriller.

Who am I?

Since I was a child, stories steeped in secrets have fascinated me. I spent many hours devouring books about detectives and spies, shadows and deceit. As an adult, it is a rare treat to discover one that is so engaging I must know how it unfolds as soon as possible, and is told in a way that leaves me surprised by how it ends. Each of these books is deliciously tricky, inspiring me to read quickly, before the ghosts between the pages could escape to haunt me. 


I wrote...

Don't Look Behind You

By Emily Kazmierski,

Book cover of Don't Look Behind You

What is my book about?

New school. New friends. New stalker.

Megan Pritchard aches to find safety and security when she starts fresh in a new town. Yet the habits of a chilling past are hard to break. Keep her head down. Never tell them who she is. When someone asks about her scar... lie. For a brief flicker of time, she thought she was safe. That she could find ways to fit into that small town with secrets of its own. Then... the prickle down her spine returns. Someone is watching and waiting—just like before. But this time they won’t settle for shallow cuts. Knives, and secrets, will be buried deep.

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