Great fiction is all about providing a different perspective on the world—taking readers outside of their own heads and looking at things in an entirely new way. And you can’t get much further outside your own head than going outside your own species, right? Literature is rife with examples of books featuring non-human narrators. Done poorly, the device is alienating, but done well, it can transform the story into something universal, metaphorical, or at the very least, entirely adorable (humans are cute and all, but we’ve got nothing on Stuart Little).
The 5 books below remind us the non-human narrator can be useful and illuminating in circumstances far beyond the traditional talking animals of children’s fables.
My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk
This book will try to convince you it’s a murder mystery that takes place in 16th-century Istanbul, but don’t be fooled—it’s really an exploration of the clash between East and West, the power of the Western gaze, anxiety about cultures lost and cultures changing, passion for one’s craft, and the beauty of artistic mastery. There are many narrators, and many of them are non-human: a coin, a murdered corpse, the color red (hence the title), and Satan himself. These unusual points of view are an essential, intriguing part of a gorgeous tapestry that slowly unfolds to reveal both a mystery and an exquisite, vanishing culture.
Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips
On a less serious note, these narrators may appear to be human, but they are very much not. They’re Greek gods who have chosen to make a home in modern-day London (where they’ve been hiding out since the Renaissance), sharing a house full of petty, mundane routines and dramatic soap operas that have been playing out for eons (yeah, Aphrodite’s marriage is still kind of messed up, in case you were wondering). When they begin losing their powers, they at first don’t understand why, and it seriously cramps their style until two humans are thrown into the mix and begin helping them out. This book is great fun, and the divine narrators have a great deal to do with that. Phillips obviously had a blast considering the perspectives of the divine, and any fans of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods would do well to pick it up.
Memnoch the Devil, by Anne Rice
My absolute favorite of the Vampire Chronicles, this book was written at the “off-again” peak of Anne Rice’s relationship with the Catholic Church. As we open, Lestat, our customary vampire host, receives a strange visitor who claims he is the devil. He has a proposition for Lestat: He would like him to help out with governing Hell. As you might imagine, Lestat requires some convincing. And so Memnoch (the devil), by way of proof, decides to tell him his story, supposedly “The True Story of How It All Happened,” starting with his Fall and ending with how Hell came to be. It’s pretty enthralling, weaving traditional biblical stories with an earthy, personal, and imperfect twist. There is pride, of course, and anger, and betrayal, and lust, and all the seven deadly sins and more, but there’s also a very tempting vision of a possibility of the divine that understands and empathizes with human frailty. And of course, there’s always that uncertainty: Are we being conned? Are we really ready to trust the actual, literal Devil? Like Lestat, we have to wrestle with the story and come to our own conclusions.
The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
Technically this book is “narrated” by a third person, but you can’t make a list like this without one of the most famous examples of how a non-human character can reflect back onto humanity. Gregor Samsa’s famous transformation into an insect is obviously a…setback, as you would imagine. It forces him to rediscover how to negotiate life, from the simple feat of rolling off his back to changing what he eats and, of course, trying to show his face to anyone beyond his bedroom door. It’s an examination of many things (and thus, the world’s perfect source of endless English papers), but perhaps most powerfully, it’s about what happens to those who fall outside the boundaries of “normality,” and also familial love, responsibility, and obligation, and what those things mean.
The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
Despereaux Trilling is an awkward, large-eared runt of a mouse who appreciates things that are very un-mouse-like (especially music), to the despair of his family and the gossip of those around him. He falls in love with a princess and becomes an outcast from mouse society, eventually thrown in a dungeon as punishment. Ultimately, Despereaux goes up against a vengeful rat and a deeply unfortunate girl who would be princess, and sets the palace right. In the midst of a simple fable, DiCamillo deals with quite dark, morbid characters and issues, themes you wouldn’t necessarily think to find in a children’s book. The non-human narrator helps slot them them into a familiar fairy-tale context that helps them become accessible to children. She respects children enough to know they can handle it, maybe with some mice to help them along the way, even without a guarantee of a happily ever after.
What are your favorite books with non-human narrators?