Behind The Book: Merry Jones and The Case of the Unreliable Narrator

The Case of the Unreliable Narrator

In most novels, the narrator serves as the readersメ guide. Whether in third person or first, the narratorメs voice takes us by the hand and leads us, phrase by phrase, sentence by sentence, page by page. The narrator grounds us, sets the tone, defines the setting, gives the facts, portrays the characters. As we move through the story, we trust the narrator. We rely on her.

But what if we canメt trust or rely on her? What if the narrator is unsure, unsteady? Wrong? Confused? Deceitful? What if sheメs suffering from a psychological disorder that taints her perceptions?

A psychological disorder is exactly what afflicts the narrator in THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE and ELECTIVE PROCEDURES.

The narrator of those books, Elle Harrison, isnメt trustworthy or reliable. Her voice doesnメt steadily lead readers along a path, tracing the footsteps of a criminal and revealing モwhodunit.ヤ No, Elle often drifts away from evidence, wanders from the moment, or spins in mental circles. She has difficulty figuring out not just who did it, but even what actually has been done. Often, sheメs lost in a cloud, trying to separate whatメs real from whatメs just in her mind. And, because sheメs the narrator, when she wanders, she takes readers with her.

You might wonder why Iメd choose to create a narrator like Elle. Why risk confusing readers? Why not go the traditional route, telling the story from a more trustworthy and consistent point of view?

Hereメs why: I did it because it was a challenge to present a story from the eyes of an unconventional character, and to reveal the world through her eyes.

No question, Elle Harrison is different. Even her best friends recognize that she モpulls Elles,ヤ drifting off into her own world from time to time. Elle has been diagnosed with depersonalization disorder, a type of dissociative disorder triggered in her case by trauma or stress. When upset, Elle has a tendency to disconnect from her surroundings. Sheメs an unreliable narrator because sheメs likely to space out in the middle of a threatening situation, detach from a tense moment, or mentally separate from a perilous event. Obviously, her mental wanderings make it difficult to rely on her point of view.

But let me be clear: Elle isnメt a complete oddball. Lots of peopleラone in tenラhave experienced depersonalization. Have you ever had the sense of being outside your body? Of watching yourself from afar? Have you ever felt as if youメre caught in a モdreamヤ where nothing seems quite real? Thatメs depersonalization. For most people, these sensations pass quickly and occur rarely. But, for Elle, they come fairly often and can be intense enough to interfere with her life. Thatメs why her symptoms are considered pathological.

During her episodes, Elle recognizes that she is disconnecting and knows that the disconnects will be temporary. Even so, she can neither control nor prevent them. All she can do is minimize the triggers (stress and trauma) to reduce their frequency and duration. But seriously, what are her chances of minimizing the triggers? The woman lives on the pages of suspense novelsラMurder and mayhem are everywhere. Stress and trauma are normal, which means her depersonalization triggers will continue, and her episodes are unlikely to subside.

So letメs go back to why I decided to make Elle have this intrusive disorder. There are a couple of reasons.

First, by writing in her voice, I was able to add tension to the plot. Even with her disorder, Elle functions quite well in stable environments, such as in her job as a second grade teacher. But in the context of the novelsラconfronted by danger, unexpected upheaval, tension, and violence, her stability declines. Every incident in which she wanders (モpulling an Elleヤ) allows me to add layers to the plot. While Elle drifts off from the stressful moment, she recalls significant elements of the past, ponders unresolved questions, or imagines the future, revealing aspects of her back story and character. When she モreturnsヤ to reality, she faces a gap in time. Both she and readers are left off-balance, not knowing what happened during that gap when Elle was モaway.ヤ That uncertainty is a useful device in creating suspense.

For example, in ELECTIVE PROCEDURES, when Elleメs life is in danger, her mind takes her away to visit her late husband. Instead of panicking alone, she puts herself with a man who will soothe and reassure her. When she comes モback,ヤ Elleラand readers as wellラare left with questions. What actually happened to her? How did she survive?

And earlier, in THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, Elle has only a spotty memory of finding her husbandメs body in her den. Because readers see through her eyes, they donメt know any more than she does. Did she find him already dead? Did she witness his murder? Did she kill him herself?

Without her disorder, these questions and layers of uncertainty wouldnメt exist. In both books, the plots are enriched and tension is added because Elleメs perceptions are unreliable.

The second reason I gave Elle this condition was so I could present insights about depersonalization disorder. Itメs an incurable condition, under-reported in our society. And I took the opportunity to shine some light on it.

In most of my books, I present characters that will broaden/reinforce readersメ awareness of mental health and various psychological conditions. In ELECTIVE PROCEDURES, for example, a character suffers from body dysmorphic disorder, a condition which causes her to see her body in a distorted fashion. In other books, my characters have presented conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, narcolepsy, paranoia, depression, speech aphasia, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, narcissism, schizophreniaラand more.

Itメs my belief that suspense novels can do more than simply tell gripping stories; they can also present ideas and information. They can enhance understanding. I use my novels to create characters that sympathetically portray conditions affecting them. My plots contain accurate information about these conditions, so readersメ understanding is deepened even as they get caught up in the twists and turns of stay-up-all-night-reading page-turners.

Elle Harrison is unreliable, for sure. But Elle does more than narrate a story; she portrays a multidimensional, believable individual with her own deep conflicts and struggles. In the course of telling us dark, suspenseful tales, her voice creates not just a sense of her own psychological disorder, but a hint of the broad spectrum of human experience.

Merry Jones
Merry Jones is a versatile author, having written suspense novels, thrillers, mysteries, humor and non-fiction. Married and the mother of two, she grew up in the Chicago area, received a Masters in Communications from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, a BA from Cornell University, and now lives outside Philadelphia. Before writing full time, she was a business communications consultant, an independent video writer/producer, and a college instructor. Jones is an avid rower at Philadelphia’s Vesper Boat Club. She is active in the Philadelphia Liars Club, and a member of Mystery Writers of America, The Authors Guild, and International Thriller Writers.