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Twisting the tales of the blind


Has Ishiguro spoiled it for me?

I’ve always loved the stories of unreliable narrators. Those who tell you what they cannot tell themselves.

Gregor Samsa, who would rather be a bug than a resentful human doomed to an inhuman existence. Humbert Humbert concealing his predatory cruelty in a fog of helpless romanticism. Pi Patel hiding his trauma and loss in a child’s adventure with animals. Patrick Bateman numbing himself to the psychopathy of neoliberal consumerism with lurid fantasies of slaughter.

But the master of telling stories by not telling them is Kazuo Ishiguro.

By scrupulously circumlocuting their own stories Ishiguro’s narrators slowly construct truth in the negative space of the reader’s subconscious. Then the fateful metaphor. Windblown plastic trash snagged in the branches of a lonely tree. Unbidden tears bursting from a stoical face. The hidden story was never the extraordinary life of an unlikely character, but the human condition. As with the uninked skin of Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, the emptiness in the picture is a mirror. The tragedy is ours.

Has reading Ishiguro forever spoiled my enjoyment of unreliable narration?
Has his brilliance paled all others into insignificance?

In We Were Liars Emily Lockhardt uses the unreliable narration of an amnesiac teenager to hide what is clearly meant to be a shocking plot twist at the end. Lockhardt’s sparse, carefully crafted sentences make the novel much easier to read than the pompous verbosity of The Remains of the Day. The cliche of the tragic adolescent romance set within the confines of a wealthy, dysfunctional family is no more banal than the science fiction themed ‘Bunty’s School Days’ of Never Let Me Go. But rather than the shock of self-recognition at the end of Ishiguro’s novels the reader is alienated from the narrator as We Were Liars reveals itself as a heavy-handed morality tale.

We know from the start Cadence is an unreliable narrator struggling with post-traumatic amnesia, but Lockhardt tries to veil the twist by making her even more unreliable and her family even more perverse than we previously suspected. However, as the shadows in her past are slowly dispelled the structure of the plot signals the final reveal by leaving few possible options for the inevitable climax. With only the darkest shadow remaining there is only one event dark enough to be lurking there. At least it isn’t quite as cliched as discovering the tragic romantic heroine is a ghost, despite the false clue Lockhardt leaves in a reference to Wuthering Heights.

There’s insight in Lockhardt’s observation that self-righteous virtue can be a projection of unacknowledged guilt, but by driving it home with a sledgehammer in the epilogue she almost blames Cadence for her own suffering, turning We Were Liars into a story of retribution without redemption. If We Were Liars had ended at its final plot twist it would have been a better story; one that shows its moral rather than telling it.

It’s unfair to compare Emily Lockhardt’s young adult fiction with the genius of a Nobel prizewinner, but Ishiguro’s writing and my own perfectionism have left me little choice.
Will unreliable narratives be forever overshadowed by the work of the master?
Perhaps I could do with a touch of amnesia myself.

From → books

  1. monica permalink

    are you gonna make me read these books??


    • Nah.

      I read We Were Liars so anyone who reads the review won’t have to. I only read it because of the gushing reviews of others and was disappointed, so this post is to get some balance out there.

      If you haven’t already read the others you’re not a reader anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      • monica permalink

        hahah! i read some of them. i finished English Lit at university.

        maybe i’ll comment when you do a review of Joseph ConradšŸ˜.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Then if you haven’t read Ishiguro I can highly recommend him. I couldn’t work out how he did what he did until I went back to some of his earlier works when he was first developing his technique and unpacked it. Not all of his stories are in negative space but the two I mention in the post are probably the most well developed examples.

          The only Conrad I’ve read so far is Heart of Darkness (of course) and Lagoon. I’ve got a few more of his novels in my e-reader that I’ve been promising myself for years but still haven’t got around to. Another reason to kick myself for wasting time on We Were Liars (gotta say the prose was strong though, in a stripped down Hemingwayesque sort of way).

          Liked by 1 person

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