The Rise of the Unreliable Narrator in YA Lit

Abigail Haas's Dangerous Girls

In real life, we as a species don’t enjoy being lied to. Discovering someone you trusted isn’t who they say they are, or that events they’ve reported were fabricated, is a pretty brutal form of treachery. And yet, in entertainment, we sure do love to be deceived.

Unreliable narrators take many shapes and forms. There are the unintentionally deceptive, those with a genuine lack of self-awareness or sophisticated worldview. There are those afflicted by trauma, no longer able to process reality in the same way the reader does (a popular trope is that of the temporary amnesiac, who spends the novel presenting events as he or she recalls them, while filling in the gaps that make up the real story). And then there are the straight-up sociopaths. With open arms, we readers embrace them all.

Perhaps nothing proves this phenomenon as strongly as the enormous success of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl. Two pretty despicable people take turns lying to us over and over again, and we keep turning the pages in a complicit game of “Thank you sir, may I have another.” We love being shocked, being thrown, being pushed off our game. Not only do we love it, but we want more of it. And, apparently, we want it to start younger.

And so began the search for the “Gone Girl of Young Adult,” and the biggest rise of the Unreliable Teen Narrator since Justine Larbalestier literally wrote the book on it in 2009. Few trends are rising faster in YA right now than books that push those psychological boundaries, both of characters and readers, and chip away at our ability to trust in what we think we know to be true. Here are a few that are roundly worth the deception:

17 & Gone, by Nova Ren Suma
In fairness to protagonist Lauren, she doesn’t want to deceive you.  She’s an obsessive character on a savior mission, and facts and logic just don’t factor in—especially when the main character seems to be playing with blurred paranormal lines. But it’s worth being led around by Suma’s trademark gorgeous literary style and—my personal favorite part of the book—the montage of stories of 17-year-old girls gone missing, and the insight into what about that age and its fragility might lead one so far astray she can never return.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
It’s always tempting to judge the actions of a person under duress, contemplating what you might’ve done differently, how you might hold up under torture. Go ahead and judge the eponymous narrator, a WWII pilot facing torture upon her capture; I suspect she’d welcome it. Just don’t come crying to me when you end up crying your eyes out at this story of best friendship, bravery, and loyalty.

Reclaimed, by Sarah Guillory
This book is beautifully told from three points of view, and it’s difficult to say just how many of them you can trust. All I can say is this: it’s not your ordinary love triangle. And when you think you’ve figured it all out? Keep reading. You haven’t.

Dangerous Girls, by Abigail Haas
If you’re looking for the nearest equivalent to Gone Girl in YA, this book—which reads like a thrillingly imagined YA novelization of the Amanda Knox/Meredith Kercher/Raffaele Sollecito trial, with a bit of Natalee Holloway’s case thrown in for good measure—is the one you’ve been looking for. Just make sure you set aside a few hours of your day, because once you pick it up, you won’t be putting it down until you’ve read every last, haunting word. And don’t be fooled by your cleverness in knowing whodunit. Because sometimes, “who” just isn’t the point.

Who’s your favorite unreliable narrator?

  • Lionors

    I love the idea of an unreliable narrator and have since the movie ‘The Usual Suspects’.

  • Jackie Lea Sommers

    See, “Gone Girl” only pissed me off. I hated feeling tricked.

    Wrote a little about it here:

  • Greg Laden

    I’ve been reading Elizabeth Peters (narrator = Amelia Peabody) and enjoying it. She’s reliably unreliable so you know what to expect, so this aspect of the narration becomes part of the style rather than the mystery itself.

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