15 riveting books with unreliable narrators or ambiguous endings

15 riveting books with unreliable narrators or ambiguous endings

The tenth category for the 2017 Reading Challenge—for those of you who are stretching yourselves this year—is “a book with an unreliable narrator or ambiguous ending.”

Readers, here’s what I like about these kinds of books: when the narrator can’t be trusted, or the ending is open-ended, the reader has to think for herself to figure out the story. She has to actively engage with the text in a way that other books may not demand. She has to critically evaluate the situations in the pages to figure out what on earth is going on. She has to draw her own conclusions, because the author doesn’t draw them for her.

More on unreliability: narrators can’t be trusted for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re deliberately lying, sometimes they misunderstand the situation, perhaps they’re drunk, or forgetful, or suffer from some other condition that makes us doubt their version of events. (Some say we’re all unreliable narrators, because anyone’s version of events is just one of many, but that’s not the definition we’re going with here.)

More on ambiguity: some stories don’t resolve their plots. We get to the last page without knowing definitely what happened; it’s up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Some readers relish the challenge of deciding for themselves what happened next; some close the book feeling only frustration.

Need ideas for this category? I’m sharing 15 of my favorite books with unreliable narrators and ambiguous endings below, although I’m not always telling you which is which. With some books, deciding who can and can’t be trusted, and figuring out where the story may end up, is a huge part of the fun. I won’t spoil that for you.

If you’re reading for fun this year, your assignment is to read a book recommended by someone with great taste, defined however you choose.

What are you reading for this category? What titles would you add to the list?

Series: 15 Books with Unreliable Narrators and Ambiguous Endings
The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald's classic was the topic of my first high school term paper—and despite that, I still love it. Fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby has built a mansion on Long Island Sound for the sole purpose of wooing and winning his lost love Daisy Buchanan, who married another man while Gatsby was serving overseas. This classic American novel captures the Jazz Age in all its decadence and excess, while weaving a wistful story of love and loss, told by Nick Carraway—but can we really trust his version of the tale? Critics and readers are split. More info →
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Rebecca

Rebecca

Suspenseful but not scary, and it holds its tension on a re-reading: a sure sign of a well-crafted thriller. This 1930s Gothic classic is an un-put-down-able, curl-up-by-the-fire mystery. Don't be put off by its age: this thrilling novel feels surprisingly current. Because the young unnamed wife doesn't understand what's going on for a long time, neither does the reader. More info →
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Lolita

Lolita

I've been meaning to read Lolita for years, so this may be my personal pick for this category. (I have my eye on the audio edition, narrated by Jeremy Irons, because I keep hearing Nabokov's superbly-crafted prose is even better when read aloud.) Some critics argue that Humbert Humbert is the best example of the unreliable narrator in literature; others argue that he's not unreliable, just painfully honest. More info →
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Lie to Me

Lie to Me

Author:
Ellison sets the tone with her first line: "You aren't going to like me very much." But who is this narrator, and why does she say that? Sutton and Ethan Montclair seem to have the perfect marriage—two successful writers who not only love each other, but understand and support each other. Or that's what people think, until Sutton disappears, leaving a note telling Ethan not to look for her. As the hours tick by, Ethan begins to look more and more suspicious, and as a local investigator starts quizzing friends and family, it quickly becomes apparent that their perfect relationship was anything but. And THAT is when things get really creepy. More info →
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Elizabeth Is Missing

Elizabeth Is Missing

Author:
This psychological mystery features a deeply unreliable narrator, but not for the usual reasons. The story focuses on Maud, an 81-year-old woman whose dementia is rapidly worsening. She's convinced her friend Elizabeth is missing, but because of the dementia, no one believes her—not the police, or her son, or her well-meaning daughter. But in moments of clarity, Maud becomes convinced that another life is at stake, and she has to untangle the mystery before she runs out of time. More info →
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Life of Pi

Life of Pi

Author:
This is the story of Piscene Patel, a teenage boy from India who survives a shipwreck and subsequently spends 227 on a life raft with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Years later, Pi tells his own story, but a surprise at the end leaves the reader wondering if they really understand what happened on that raft. If you turn immediately back to page 1 and start reading again looking for clues, you're in good company. More info →
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The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

This is the only nonfiction title on this list. I picked this one up when Michael Pollan raved about it, saying it “embodied the spirit of slow food and life.” Paterniti had me from the words Zingerman’s Delicatessen. The story artfully weaves itself right into the heart of Catelonian Spain, but then it becomes muddled and confused. The reader can decide if this is weakness, or metaphor. Discussion highlight: the ending. Is it an utter failure, or completely perfect? More info →
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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

This is the story of a family in middle America, two parents and three kids, completely normal—with one major exception. Daughter Rosemary is our narrator, who insists on page 1 that she needs to skip the beginning of this story and start in the middle instead. We soon learn that when Rosemary's sister left, everyone else fell apart, and they're still picking up the pieces. Don't read the description, just start reading. (Before a Modern Mrs Darcy team member gave this Man Booker Prize finalist to her sister, she removed the jacket so she wouldn't be tempted.) More info →
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All the Missing Girls

All the Missing Girls

Author:
This nail-biter unravels the story of two girls who disappeared from the same tiny North Carolina town a decade apart. Ten years ago Nicolette Farrell left her hometown for good after her best friend vanished without a trace. She was never going back, but when she gets the call that her dad is sick she reluctantly heads home. Shortly after her arrival another girl vanishes—right after she'd been asking too many questions about the first girl's disappearance. Ten years ago Nicolette Farrell left her hometown for good after her best friend vanished without a trace. The real twist here is the interesting format: after a short prologue, the story is told in reverse, starting with day 15 of the mystery and workings backwards to day 1. This would feel like a cheap trick if done poorly, but it wasn't, and I loved it. A dark kind of fun. More info →
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I Let You Go

I Let You Go

It's trendy these days for every suspense novel to have a "shocking plot twist!" but this tightly-crafted novel makes your jaw drop time and again, without feeling gimmicky or manipulative. On a dark, rainy night, a mother lets go of her son's hand for just an instant. The devastating accident sets the plot in motion. Part police procedural, part domestic suspense, with the ring of authenticity, no doubt thanks to Mackintosh's own 12 years as a police officer. This is an emotional roller coaster of a book. (Sensitive themes ahead, so mind your triggers.) More info →
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Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Author:
In this short Australian classic, a group of girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies venture out for a picnic at Hanging Rock on a beautiful afternoon. Three of the girls set out for a hike, and are never seen again. What happened to them? (As I was reading this short novel, it strongly reminded me of something I'd read before, but I couldn't figure out WHAT. I finally realized it wasn't a book at all—it was the TV show Lost!) More info →
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In the Woods

In the Woods

Author:
This is the first of French's popular Dublin Murder Squad; it’s tight, twisty, and unpredictable. The story has two primary threads: one revolves around a psychopath, the other around a supernatural disturbance, and you'll want to talk about both. The ending makes this perfect for book clubs—there's so much to discuss—but I won't tell you how, or why, because getting there is half the fun. More info →
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Atonement

Atonement

Author:
The story hinges on a horrible, life-altering lie told by a 13-year-old girl and its devastating ripple effects. But in a novel that's all about the dangerous power of the imagination, the characters' revealed imaginings for their own futures are breathtaking. More info →
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The Secret History

The Secret History

Author:
The story begins with a murder, and the lonely, introspective narrator devotes the rest of the novel to telling the reader about his role in it, and how he seemingly got away with it. But how much of his story is really what it seems? The setting is a small Vermont college, the characters members of an isolated, eccentric circle of classics majors, who murder one of their own. Strongly reminiscent of The Likeness in setting, Crime and Punishment in plot, and Brideshead Revisited in tone. More info →
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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Author:
I read this as my "book you can finish in a day" for the 2016 Reading Challenge. As expected, it's not exactly scary, but Jackson is sure good at infusing a story with a creepy atmosphere. In this work, her last completed novel before her death, she tells the story of the Blackwood family. Not so long ago there were seven Blackwoods, but four of them dropped dead from arsenic poisoning several years ago and how that happened remains a mystery. Read this during daylight hours: its themes of family secrets, hateful neighbors, and mysterious deaths aren't the stuff of bedtime reading. More info →
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54 comments

  1. Wow, such a great list. I had forgotten that Life of Pi shared this characteristic but you’re right! I loved Elizabeth Is Missing. I want to check out LIE TO ME; I keep hearing about it! (And Atonement? I know it’s so well-done, but I confess I wanted to throw it across the room at the end…) Happy reading.

  2. Katie says:

    I think Clare Mackintosh’s second novel “I See You” was seen better than her first. And she has a third book coming out next year…can’t wait!

  3. Susan says:

    Unfortunately this is a category that many authors try but few do well (I’m looking at you Woman in Cabin 10 and Girl on a Train). I think some YA selections that would fit well here include Code Name Verity and We Were Liars.

  4. Pam says:

    Great list! I fell in love with Tana French a while back when you recommended The Likeness, and I just finished listening to In the Woods! For the life of me, I can’t remember the supernatural disturbance, though! Help!

  5. Missy G. says:

    Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist fits this category perfectly (also not telling which though), and is one of my favorite books to recommend to friends. I wish I could remember how I discovered this book (maybe just plucked it off a library shelf?), but I had no idea what I was getting into when I started it. SO GOOD.

    • Liz Erdmer says:

      Yup, I was just about to add that one. One of the best and most effective in this genre. I have thought of it many times long after reading it.

  6. Ann T says:

    I would add ‘Based on a True Story’ by Delphine De Vigan, it had me wondering for ages afterwards. I would love to hear other readers thoughts on their version of what happened.

  7. Mary H says:

    I love this list, Anne. In the Woods sold me on Tana French and Atonement is pure perfection in my opinion (although I can see how it would frustrate readers, Heather).
    I recently read The Sense of an Ending with my book club, a great choice for this category. We loved it.

  8. Kathleen Miller says:

    I think you’d enjoy “The Dinner” by Herman Koch. The appetizer course is light, but there are secrets under the table (so to speak).

  9. Stephanie says:

    How…creepy? icky?…is Lolita? I know you’re a sensitive reader so I trust your take on it. I feel like I should read it, but I’m definitely conflicted. The only thing I know about it is that the girl is alarmingly young. Thanks for any input!

  10. gail says:

    I would add a few to your list: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and pretty much anything by Kazuo Ishiguro, but especially Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. Frankly, those novels are on my short list of favorite reads ever, so I must really love this category!

  11. Michelle says:

    Another one I loved that fits this category is “Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane, so good! I always loved that Shirley Jackson book. Such a quick read with a lot packed in.

    • Cheryl says:

      I immediately thought of Shutter Island, too! Vivid memories of sitting up late in the window seat of my Seattle hotel, racing through that one.

  12. Brittney says:

    The first book with an ambiguous ending I remember reading is The Giver, and it was delicious to me! It was pure poetry. I later recommended it to my fledgling book club and it immediately solidified us into a group that can disagree passionately about books and have a marvelous time doing it.

  13. Kelli says:

    Great list! I look forward to reading some of these 🙂
    I would add Etta and Otto and Russell and James to the list. This was a book that made me want to read more ambiguous ending/unreliable narrator books.

  14. Casey says:

    I love Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer for this category. It’s technically science fiction, but is set in the panhandle of Florida in the very near future. It reads like literary fiction. It’s amazing and creepy and has the best unreliable narrator I’ve read.

  15. Torrie says:

    What a great list of books! There are a ton I haven’t read that sound super interesting, so I’ll have to go check those out ASAP.

    My own suggestions to add to the list:
    – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (though the unresolved ending probably INFURIATED most readers, I personally loved the cliffhanger and thought the ending was brilliant!)
    – The Silver Linings Playbook (Even though it’s been several years since I read this, I still remember feeling like I didn’t know if I could trust the narrator’s judgment or not (and leaned toward “not,” but that was all part of the fun. I breezed through this one!)

    • I second My Cousin Rachel – it’s more mature than Rebecca (though Rebecca is my favorite du Maurier), and the narrator is even more unreliable – there are sections where every chapter has you flipping back and forth over what is really going on.

  16. Jessie Buckmaster says:

    I would add Handmaid’s Tale – which makes the show so fascinating as we’re now getting a broader picture of what is going on in Gilead than just what Offred experiences.
    I think Girl through Glass would also be unreliable narrator, though also an unresolved ending that doesn’t sit well with me. All the Birds in the Sky (struggled through that one). Jane Austen Project. Versions of Us (in a sense, with 3 different stories and no one “right” ending).

  17. Shabnam says:

    Great list! I’d add:
    Villette – Charlotte Brontë
    We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver
    My Cousin Rachel – also by Daphne du Maurier (such an underrated author)
    The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

  18. Trisha says:

    Ok! I was thinking of Atonement and We Have Always Lived in the Castle! Both are huanting. But what about Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. That was a fun book that also got me thinking and that had a very unreliable narrator…

  19. If you like books with unreliable narrators, you should definitely check out ‘We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. It’s so carefully crafted and you don’t even realise until the end! I just wrote a review of it on my blog, and it definitely would fit in here!

  20. Stephanie says:

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time was my first experience with the unreliable narrator device (introduced via my high school English class) and it’s always stuck with me!

  21. Heidi says:

    Great list! I would also add “Drood” to the list (by Dan Simmons) – it’s a slightly creepy (but not scary) story largely about Charles Dickens and narrated by Wilkie Collins, who is definitely an unreliable narrator.

  22. Maryalene says:

    So many mixed emotions about this list! I love a good mystery, but HATE not getting answers. Only book I’ve read here is In The Woods and do not like it at all. However, some of that was because I really did not like one of the main characters. But I’ve seen the movie Life of Pi and loved that. Does that count?

  23. Summer says:

    Thank you for giving little warnings for fellow HSP. I only recently figured this out about myself after reliving a stabbing scene from an audio book in my mind over & over & over and being quite miserable. Being aware of triggers helps a ton, and the heads up you give are very helpful!!

  24. Cassie says:

    I read through your description of these books and immediately knew these books would not be for me. But I glanced through the list anyway, maybe to see what not to read. Sure enough there are 4 I did not like and one that I thought was okay. I love the way you can categorize books thus way. It was immediately clear why I didn’t care for these books.

  25. Wow – it’s been awhile since I read Gatsby or Secret History…didn’t remember that both narrators were unreliable! Time for some re-reads!

    And – Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker is another great thriller with an unreliable narrator.

  26. Michelle says:

    Love this list, Anne! Unreliable narrators are one of my favourite literary devices as a reader. I just love the ambiguity. I’d add A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes to this list and also The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. Two slim novels with ambiguity pouring off every page.

  27. Hannah Beth Reid says:

    I hadn’t thought about “Rebecca” in this sense, but it does fit. I am fascinated and annoyed by this genre!

  28. Donna says:

    I Let You Go is definitely one of my favourites. I’m pretty sure I’ve recommended it to everyone!
    For this category, I read Fig by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz. The narrator in this YA novel struggles with a mental illness. It came highly recommended by the teen librarian at my local library. I really enjoyed it!
    I love JT Ellison so I’ll definitely be adding Lie to Me to my TBR list! Thanks for the great recommendations as always!

  29. Jennifer S says:

    I read Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel,” and weeks later I’m still puzzling over the ending. Excellent reading.

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