The 50 Book Challenge #5 -We Need to Talk About Narrators
After staring at “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” on my ‘Failed to Read’ list for the greater part of this challenge, I was compelled to pull it out and try again. What I discovered was an incredibly moving dark piece that, if given the chance, had some really difficult but worthwhile things to say. There are so many aspects of this book that deserve mentioning, but for now there is one that stands out to me. As this was a story written in letters, I thought a letter was the only way to respond.
Here, at the end of the book, I have come to the conclusion that you have been lying to me. I don’t just mean once in a while, like the exaggerated first-person account of a teenage protagonist. I mean the whole novel.
Sure, it’s not my first walk in the park with this. I am quite aware that other narrators have lied more directly to me in the past. John in “You Don’t Even Know Me” told bold face falsehoods whenever possible, constantly changing the details into something more pleasing to him. He would lead me down all of these paths only to refute his own stories later in the book. Still, his stories were always so colorful that they entertained, even if they were lies.
Then of course there was “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” The title still gives me shudders. I had so much faith in Dr. Sheppard, I was so invested in his story. Maybe it seems trite, but I honestly felt hurt when I reached the end and he admitted that it was all a lie. That he was the guilty party. I can hardly revisit the book in my mind without flying into fits of rage.
I know you didn’t deceive me in that way. Your story was much more about self-deceit than any intention of leading a reader astray. You really believed that your son was evil and that your daughter was the epitome of all that was good. Dichotomizing was your way of justifying, of finding some solace for what happened in your life. It’s much more like John Cleaver in “I Am Not a Serial Killer,” when you think about it. John’s sociopathic nature led him to say the things he did, he wasn’t aware that they weren’t true. It’s just how he saw the world.
In that way, I do understand why you told your story with such a skew. Making us believe you were writing letters to someone who actually was never on the other end, coloring your son’s life story with an emotional viewpoint. It all makes sense. I really can’t even blame you for being an unreliable narrator, as the writing world calls it. Even though I didn’t like “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” I can appreciate the narrative lies that made that story so emotionally compelling. The strength of “You Don’t Even Know Me” comes from John’s elaborate imagination that takes what would have been a very bleak tale of child abuse and makes it into a surreal adventure into the mind of a young boy. Then through the lies in your letters, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” has an ending that twists what the reader has believed all along and leaves important questions lingering in their minds after they close the book cover.
This is the dangerous power of an unreliable narrator, in many ways it mirrors life. We go about our days, collecting stories and putting them together like picking flowers. Then when we tell them we arrange them, shifting this little detail around. We make sense of everything in our minds. Maybe an embellishment here, a little self-denial there, maybe some justification. Honestly, how reliable are any of us as narrators of our own lives?
Can you write a 140 character letter to one of your favorite narrators? Leave a comment or tweet #50bookblog
— Chris Ceary (@QuillChris)
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