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Reviewletts: When Good Narrators Turn Unreliable

Reviewletts: When Good Narrators Turn Unreliable post image

In an effort to maybe, perhaps, hopefully get caught up on all the books I haven’t reviewed, I’m planning to start doing mini-reviews every couple of weeks for books that I read but didn’t have much to say about. If you have more specific questions about any of this week’s titles, leave them in the comments!

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life. In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die. As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she’d found. Will she pay any price to keep it? (Source)

Grace Winter is  fabulously unreliable and twisty narrator. While I don’t want to spoil anything about The Lifeboat, I think it’s safe to say that as the narrative progresses it becomes more and more clear that the story Grace is presents is skewed in some unexpected ways. Her space on the Emperess Alexandra and the lifeboat are not simply matters of chance. I would love to have read this book with a book club because there are just so many juicy things to discuss, both about the choices those in the lifeboat are forced to make and about Grace herself. I thought this one was really good.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and forever, and they discover how hard it can be to truly live and how easy it is to kill. (Source)

It might actually be a little unfair to call Richard Papen, the first person narrator of The Secret History, unreliable. More often, he is forced to play the straight man against the increasingly erratic behavior of his classmates. He leaves out perspective on events because they refuse to include him, leaving us as readers both insiders and outsiders to the events that lead up to a murder revealed in the prologue. In any case, The Secret History was a fantastically paced mystery and psychological exploration set in one of my favorite places, a secluded liberal arts college, that I deeply enjoyed.

Disclosure: The Lifeboat came from the library; I purchased The Secret History.

Photo Credit: albertogp123 via Flickr

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy) August 3, 2012, 6:58 am

    I do love a good unreliable narrator!

  • Meg August 3, 2012, 7:50 am

    Getting deeply into a story only to learn I can’t completely trust what the narrator is selling me is a pretty delicious feeling! I love that topsy-turvy “but was this true? Was thsi true?” sensation. I’ll be looking into both of these!

  • Nikki August 3, 2012, 12:54 pm

    So glad you enjoyed The Secret History. I think it’s pretty fair to say Richard can be a bit unreliable — especially in the beginning when so much of his time is given to adoring and trying to live up to being friends with these people.

    The whole book feels a bit uncertain and shadowed to me, with the feeling of the book almost overwhelming the actual story line. It’s certainly one of my favorite books though.

  • Aarti August 3, 2012, 2:26 pm

    I have had The Secret History for a REALLY long time but I just can’t bring myself to read it because it sounds so much like The Skulls….

  • Megan August 3, 2012, 6:50 pm

    Unreliable narrators can be fun. It’s interesting to have your initial perceptions turned on their head. I quite liked The Secret History, and it sounds like I should definitely get my hands on a copy of The Lifeboat!

  • Jenny August 8, 2012, 7:15 pm

    What I like about The Secret History is that Richard is a completely reliable narrator caught in a story being narrated by someone completely unreliable (Henry). In some ways it’s even cooler than a regular unreliable narrator.

    The Lifeboat sounds great! I am a sucker for any book that can be described as “twisty”. 😀

    • Christy August 13, 2012, 9:30 am

      Well put, Jenny, regarding the reliable narrator caught in an unreliable narrator’s story.

    • Kim August 29, 2012, 6:32 pm

      Yes, that’s such a smart way of putting it! That’s what I was trying to say, but not nearly as succinctly 🙂

  • Andi August 11, 2012, 11:32 am

    My in-person book club just picked The Secret History for October, and I’m primed and ready for a re-read! Loved it the first time around.

  • Christy August 13, 2012, 9:28 am

    Glad you enjoyed The Secret History! I remember the whole section at the funeral was fantastic especially.

  • Jennifer August 26, 2012, 12:01 pm

    I was just talking to my students about unreliable narrators! Sometimes, they can really make a book so much more interesting. I love these shorter reviews – in many ways, they add more intrigue to the books!