Straight Off the Shelf: 7 Unhinged Narrators Who Will Haunt Your Dreams
Editor’s Note: We’ve been fans of Joanne Harris since CHOCOLAT hit the shelves. Her latest novel, DIFFERENT CLASS, veers into psychological suspense reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith—and we couldn’t be more excited. We’re thrilled to have her on Off the Shelf to share her picks of from the genre featuring unhinged narrators to haunt your dreams.
Being a lover of troubled and complex characters, I want to share a list of books I love that have unreliable narrators. Uncertain of their world, they have all reshaped it in their own ways, often with startling and disturbing results. Their voices are intimate, quirky, unique; their motivations unfathomable. We may not always like these darkly ingenious creations, and yet their stories pursue us from the page, and more often than not, into our dreams…
1The Wasp Factory
Told from the perspective of 16-year-old Frank Cauldhame, this chilling and thought-provoking novel deals with the everyday life of a tiny community on a remote Scottish island and the secret life of a very troubled teenager—his rituals, obsessions, and search for identity. Brutal, stark, and visceral, with moments of existentialist humor, it continues to divide readers and critics as violently as any novel has since Anthony Burgess’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
2We Have Always Lived in the Castle
A dark yet quiet thriller set in a small community in Vermont. Two sisters, Constance and Mary Katherine (Merricat), live with their ailing uncle, shunned by the community since the death of their family by poison. Merricat, the young and troubled narrator, is both disturbing and delightfully weird: she remains one of the most endearing psychopaths in literature.
Patricia Highsmith’s most underrated work, EDITH’S DIARY is a dark glimpse into the underbelly of small-town America. Edith Howland, a middle-aged woman, discarded by her husband and frustrated with her life, re-creates her ideal existence through a series of diary entries that increasingly diverge from reality. Through her eyes, we can only glimpse the truth as it emerges, heading toward a conclusion as poignant as it is chilling.
The best of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, and unusual in its first-person narrative, ENDLESS NIGHT is a surprisingly noir combination of familiar elements: a rich heiress, a louche playboy, a gipsy’s curse, a femme fatale—and a dénouement that still packs an emotional punch, in spite of the rather theatrical style.
5The Debt to Pleasure
A sinister, clever comedy, featuring the sentimental journey of middle-aged gourmand Tarquin Winot, traveling from Portsmouth to Provence, whilst at the same time revealing his past life in a series of gastronomic vignettes. Tarquin is a marvelous creation: articulate, superbly delusional, and as devoted to French cuisine as he is to murder.
6The Little Friend
Beginning with the unexplained and violent death of a nine-year-old boy in a small American town, THE LITTLE FRIEND is both a slow-burning novel of suspense and an exploration of grief, of a child’s attempt to understand her world. With echoes of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, 12-year-old Harriet and her friend Hely set off to avenge the murder of Harriet’s brother, ten years ago.
7Behind Her Eyes
BEHIND HER EYES is the most unusual book I’ve read this year; part thriller, part supernatural, it manages to walk the tightrope between the two genres in a surefooted way rarely achieved in either. That, with the addition of peerless prose and sophisticated characterization, makes it an uneasy, if thrilling, ride. And the final reveal, when it comes, is a shock that took even this lover of suspense by surprise.