What about the ‘unreliable narrator’?

Two recent bestsellers have two things in common: the first is the use of the word ‘girl’ in the title, and the second is a story told by at least one ‘unreliable narrator’. I read ‘Gone Girl’ because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and felt at the end that I needed to cleanse myself from its unredeemed nastiness. Both ‘unreliable narrators’ were equally horrid and it was of little interest to me therefore which of them was the real villain. After that experience I was determined to resist the hype around ‘Girl on the Train’ and haven’t read it, or seen the film. girl-on-the-trainI read the reviews however and understand that the narrator – transposed from London to the USA for the film – is a drunkard and a liar whose testimony must therefore be suspect. I’m not sure I would warm to the character any more than I did to the ghastly creatures in the previous ‘Girl’ book.

Then I remembered another unreliable narrator, where the device was employed to such effect that I was pulled further into the story than I would have been otherwise. This was in ‘Empire of the Sun’, by J.G. Ballard, a story told from the point of view of a young boy – Ballard himself – caught up in the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai in 1941, and its aftermath. Jim, the unreliable narrator, brings to the story his own childish innocence, naivety, optimism and compassion. He is unaware of his own slow decline into starvation and illness, and the reader has to glean this information not from the boy himself but from the reactions of the adults he encounters. It’s a gut-wrenching experience, in both the book and the film, and had a powerful impact on me. empire-of-the-sun

Ever since then I’ve toyed with the possibilities of using the POV of an unreliable but sympathetic story-teller. To begin with in my writing it was hard enough just to get the story told in a way that would keep the reader engaged, using the most straightforward narrative techniques – past tense, third person. I recall suggesting to my editor very early on that I might try something more ambitious and being gently warned off. Now with five ‘traditionally-told’ novels under my belt, this could be the time to stretch my skills. I’ve already given myself more time, delaying the next publication until the summer of 2018. Now I have to use that time to think about the choices I have and how best to tell a compelling story with a narrator who is likeable, even loveable, but whose view of events is limited by personality, maturity, or the complexity of the circumstances they face. It’s a challenge. I’m thinking hard about it.

‘Foreshadowing’: can it be overdone?

Louise Dappletree30-12-13oughty had a profound impact on my fiction writing when I first met her on an Arvon course in 2008 called ‘How to Write  novel’. She was already a well-published author, although not as famous and celebrated as she has since become. More importantly for me at the time, she was an inspirational teacher. I wonder if she has the time to do similar courses these days?

Recently I met her again at the Killer Women day in London, and bought her book ‘Apple Tree Yard’ which she signed for me. Since then I’ve tried to read the book, and thought about a plot device she uses known as ‘foreshadowing’, where the writer obliquely alerts the reader to a future development. The caricature of this device would be – ‘Little did she know that…’, or ‘If only he’d known then that…’. The foreshadowing in ‘Apple Tree Yard’ was more subtle than that, but it served the same purpose.

The first time foreshadowing was used in ‘Apple Tree Yard’, I was interested. The second time I was surprised. The third time I was irritated, and after that I gave up. I felt I was being manipulated, and it annoyed me. The text was also dense with detail, which had to be ploughed through to get to the plot twist that had been dangled in front of me. I found myself flicking ahead. Delayed gratification of one’s curiosity clearly doesn’t work well for me.

Now I’m wondering, what are the limits to using the foreshadowing device? Its repetition in this story must have been considered carefully, and survived – I suspect – some discussions with the editor. Writer and editor must have decided on the final form, and not bothered that a reader like me might find it clunky and intrusive. ‘Apple Tree Yard’ has been widely praised, so the critics too must have found the foreshadowing device more acceptable than I did. Maybe I’m just too impatient and perverse to let myself be pulled by the nose through the story, because that’s the way it felt.