What was I going to write about? Oh yes, narrators with — ouch — head injuries that mess with their memories.

And, before I forget, this post has spoilers.

Amnesia is incredibly rare in real life, but within the last year I’ve read three novels with this kind of unreliable narrator.

The books

From 1997

Upon a Dark Night* by Peter Lovesey


(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  A young woman with bad injuries is dumped the the hospital parking lot. When she awakes, she has no memory of who she is or what happened to her.

Although Detective Inspector Peter Diamond is the protagonist of the series, many of the chapters are from the young woman’s rather hazy point of view.

“Her loss of identity was total… She didn’t even know what sex she belonged to.
It called for self-discovery of the most basic sort. Tentatively she explored her body with her hand, traced the swell of her breast and then moved down. “


From 2015

Crash & Burn by Lisa Gardner

A mysterious woman survives a car crash, but has a head injury that leaves her memory severely impaired. Is it coincidence that she has sustained two previous head injuries in the recent past? She doesn’t remember.


My name is Nicky Frank. Except, most likely, it isn’t.


From 2018

The Witch Elm by Tana French

After Toby Hennessy is assaulted badly, he loses parts of his memory. He’s not at all sure what happened and, more importantly, what criminal acts he might have carried out in the past.


Unreliable narrators are incredibly popular right now (see Gone Girl, the Girl on the Train, and We Were Liars, for example). As a writer, I can understand the impulse to include a character who is a living, breathing victim, but who can’t reveal too much about what happened.  It helps generate sympathy for them, increasing the chances the reader will stick around to figure out the crime.  When the author drops a dead body in the first few pages, it is up to the detective(s) to generate emotional investment in solving the crime, which can be a more difficult task.

Writing an unreliable narrator, however, can be tricky. The best ones slowly regain their memories, creating a character arc that amounts to a writing trick for revealing back story in a believable way.

The worst ones aren’t consistent, remembering pieces when convenient, then forgetting again in the next chapter. Even worse, when it isn’t believable in what they supposedly forget. Take for example the young woman in Upon A Dark Night quoted above. Gender identity isn’t stored in the same place as the type of memories she appears to have lost. Plus, imagine yourself lying in a bed with your eyes shut. Can you figure out your own gender without feeling yourself up? I can. That error dumped me right out of the story.

Even the set up must be believable. In Crash & Burn, a woman who has had two previous bad concussions receives yet another brain injury. Why would the author do that? Perhaps to make sure the victim doesn’t regain her memory? It seemed like overkill, however, and frankly made an unlikely story even less plausible.

Authors often use unreliable narrators to generate convoluted plot twists, leading the reader down one path before careening off in a new direction. To keep the reader invested, there must be clues that things aren’t exactly as suggested on the surface. Unfortunately, if the clues are too subtle it can make for exhausting reading because you have to evaluate every word, every sentence for hidden meanings.

That was definitely the case in The Witch Elm for me. Not only was the main character an unreliable narrator, he turned out to have a negative character arc, starting out as a seemingly mild-mannered, pleasant young man who might have done something shady. By the end, I was trying to figure out why we were supposed to be interested in this man’s story at all. No one else in the story cared, either. It was only Tana French’s beautiful writing that kept me reading at all.

On the whole, I would say that mysteries with unreliable narrators who have amnesia or memory loss leave me unsatisfied. Let’s face it, people with their memories intact are unreliable enough. No need to add what is obviously an artificial construct into the mix.


How about you? Do you enjoy novels with unreliable narrators?