Experimenting with the “voice” telling a story is a fundamental tool of the fiction-writing trade. Narrators come in a wide variety of styles, from first-person intimate, to unreliably distanced, to godlike in knowledge and perception. The way a story is told is just as important—sometimes more so—than the story itself.
Still, most narrators are more or less conventional. They may be sarcastic, or disturbed, or duplicitous, but they’re usually recognizably human. Except when they aren’t, as they certainly aren’t in these eight books, which feature some of the most unconventional narrators you’ll encounter.
Nutshell, by Ian McEwan
A pregnant woman embarks on an affair with her brother-in-law, a man who is handsome, charming, and ruthless where her husband is portly, afflicted, and soft. They plot the husband’s murder, unaware that they are being eavesdropped on…by the unborn, near-term baby in her womb. The whole story is narrated by the urbane and world-weary voice of the unborn baby, who has been absorbing the podcasts and television programs his mother watches, forming opinions on the wine and food she consumes, and growing increasingly alarmed about the plot to murder his father. McEwan has crafted a immensely readable story that’s both a thriller and an oddity—but a delightful one.
A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny
Zelazny’s final novel was also one of his personal favorites, a breathtaking exercise that combines Victorian-era characters with a Lovecraftian mythos, all narrated by a dog named Snuff. What sets Snuff apart from the many other dog narrators in literary history is that he’s not so much a dog as a Familiar—a spirit in animal form who assists a player in the “Great Game” (a struggle to either close off or open wide the doors that would allow the Great Old Ones to enter our world and destroy humanity). Snuff is Familiar to none other than Jack the Ripper, and each chapter is a day in the month of October, with the ritual that will decide the fate of the universe coming, naturally, on Halloween.
Feersum Endjinn, by Iain Banks
Three-fourths of Banks’ novel is narrated by three distinct but conventional narrators, until we get to the sections narrated by Bascule the Teller, a young man who can contact and communicate with the spirits of the dead within the “crypt,” a system of uploaded personalities that can be reincarnated, physically or digitally. Bascule speaks and writes in a personal shorthand reminiscent of “textspeak.” The most famous example is: “Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.” Bascule always narrates in this style; what’s most surprising is how quickly you get used to it.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Room is narrated by five-year old Jack, an unconventional choice, though not completely unheard of. What elevates Jack into the realm of the truly unconventional narrator is his limited experience: having been born and raised in the tiny room he and his mother are confined to by her kidnapper, Jack’s perspective is often alien in the way he describes environments and events. Jack’s belief that Room encompasses the entire universe, fostered by his mother as a sort of protective coating keeping him safe from their miserable reality, is disorienting and affecting, even if you know the story going in.
My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk
Pamuk’s novel is set in the Ottoman Empire in 1591, where the sultan has commissioned a book to commemorate his reign and life. One of the miniaturists hired to illuminate it in the European style is murdered, and the book becomes a mystery—albeit one narrated by the strangest collection of beings and objects in literature. A coin, a dog, the corpse of the murdered man, and, yes, the color Red all narrate what they witnessed, and slowly the mystery coalesces into a solution. Any story narrated by a color would be odd enough to make this list, but Pamuk’s classic doubles down on strange narrators multiple times. It’s the reigning heavyweight champ of strange narrators.
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The Murder of Roger Akroyd, by Agatha Christie
Christie’s classic mystery novel remains controversial among fans of the whodunnit for one simple reason (and be warned if you plan to read it; this remains a spoiler nearly a century after the book’s publication, which tells you all you need to know about its quality): the narrator turns out to be the murderer himself. How Christie cleverly manages to make Dr. James Sheppard seem like a perfectly reliable, slightly befuddled narrator relating Hercule Poirot’s investigation without breaking any rules is a masterclass in misdirection.
Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson
A literary version of the film Memento, Before I Go to Sleep is narrated by Christine, a woman who suffers from anterograde amnesia, which causes her to forget everything that has happened to her during the day as soon as she falls asleep. Every morning she awakes next to a strange man—only to discover a journal that informs her that he is Ben, her husband of more than 20 years. Encouraged by her therapist to keep a journal that Ben doesn’t know about, her entries become increasingly ominous once she reads a warning to herself: “Don’t trust Ben.” The presence of a narrator who forgets everything makes this one of the most interesting books out there.
Collector Collector, by Tibor Fischer
Put simply, the narrator of this novel is an ancient Sumerian bowl that collects Collectors. Holding within itself thousands of years of human history and experience, the bowl acquires new Collectors and communicates with them, offering advice and learning. But the book’s main pleasure (which one critic quipped was by far the best novel ever written by a bowl) is the observations the bowl makes about the humans around it. The bowl reminds us that we never think twice about being our truest selves in front of our inanimate possessions.