Two Treatments of the Unreliable Narrator

This week, two very different prizewinning books, both treating of memory but with the emphasis on its inherent unreliability.

Trust by Hernan Diaz. A New York Times bestseller list in 2022 and Barack Obama’s favourite book of that year apparently.

This work is a sprawling and occasionally macabre story of fabulous wealth, financial acumen, patriarchy, yet more wealth and yet more patriarchy; I got half-way through the book before realising I wasn’t reading what I thought I was reading.

That’s because I  hadn’t looked at the contents page properly. Anyway, no spoilers.

One reviewer described Trust as an interlocking puzzle which seems accurate to me.

Told in four sections, the third section is narrated by Ida Partenza, a young woman who becomes an assistant in the most unlikely circumstances to Andrew Bevel the financier whose story this book mostly is.  By the time they meet, he owns half the US and she is to help him write his memoir.  Bevel is, you might say, a man of traditional values.   Of the 1929 crash he says,

“Everyone was playing finance with toy money.  Even women got in on the market!”

(At least he couldn’t blame us for the 2008 crash).

Trust is good at covering  changes in attitudes and cultural upheavals of the last century.       However I guessed the denouement – if that’s what it was –  long before the end.  I’m not sure if I was as sold on this book as Barack Obama, but it is cleverly plotted.  And the thing about memoir – especially if you are ultra rich and successful  –  is that your world view is the one that counts.  You shape your world according to the way you want to see it.  Your truth is THE truth.  Or is it?

Trust shared the Pulitzer Prize 2023 with Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.


I’ve been a fan of the Irish writer Sebastian Barry ever since The Secret Scripture (Booker prize winner, 2008).  His latest book is Old God’s Time.  You know that where there is Sebastian Barry there will be a reckoning with the less savoury aspects of Ireland’s history. This time we have abuses by priests.

Old God’s Time is quite literally a haunting book.  It is peopled by ghosts.   Even the living drift wraith-like through its pages.

The story is narrated by retired policeman Tom Kettle who lives alone in an old lean to attached to that ultimate gothic setting, a castle by the sea.   The main part of the castle is owned by a Mr. Tomelty.  There is another neighbour, a cellist conveniently, who provides atmospheric setting a plenty with occasional renderings of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei.

Tom is forced into a reckoning with his memories when one night he receives a visit from two former police colleagues asking him for information on a cold case that concerns abuse of children in which he had been involved.  But how accurate are his memories?

Tom proves an unreliable narrator as he tries to piece together the traumas and losses of his life which include the deaths of both his wife and two children.  Conversations we believe are taking place in real time suddenly turn out to be ages old, or the product of a dream.  People that pass by or are seen or waved at,  sometimes are truly there, sometimes they died a while back.

But it almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about – the star of Sebastian Barry’s books is his stunning prose.  I think I may be tempted to read this one again.

Even the weather becomes a forceful character in the hands of this writer.

“It was officially summer, so the denizens of Dalkey made their annual effort to believe in it and as usual the weather played ducks and drakes with their belief.”

“The swallows and house martins fired about like arrowheads in the limitless air above Mr. Tomelty’s labours.  Girls passed the castle shivering in their natty tops. Overcoats were seen no more even on the old, and when a storm blew along the Colliemore Road, tearing the new leaves off the trees in a premature slaughter… people prayed for better weather on the morrow.”


Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955.  He was 2018-21 Laureate for Irish Fiction.  Old God’s Time is longlisted for the 2023 Booker prize.

8 thoughts on “Two Treatments of the Unreliable Narrator

  1. I have The Secret Scripture sitting on my shelf, I found it in a Little Free Library. Love the quotes you pulled from his new one. Trust is intriguing but waiting for the hype to die down!

    1. Hey Laura thank you for this. Yes I am so out of touch that I didn’t even realise the Trust hype. I think the clue might have been in the name Obama😀

  2. I’ve heard nothing but praise for Trust, though that’s all been from people like Barack Obama. I don’t think it’s something I’d be interested in, though, and your review helps confirm that.

    I’m curious about the Sebastian Barry novel, though. I tried to read one of his other ones, I can’t remember which right now, and I couldn’t get through it thanks to its stream of consciousness setup. I’ve never done with those, and the seeming lack of plot and the wandering nature of the narrative hasn’t been anything I’ve been able to focus on or retain when I try them.

    1. I know what you mean about stream of consciousness, although I don’t find Barry too extreme in that direction. At least not this latest one. I downloaded a sample of John Fosse’s Septology to my kindle – he’s just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There wasn’t a full stop or a comma in the whole sample.

  3. I have to humbly admit that I have never understood stream of consciousness – either the reason for writing it in the first place or the reason why an author assumes anyone can read and absorb the text and the meaning while at the same time desperately searching for a space to breathe.
    Is it only me? Is it only done in English? or do French/German/name another language authors do it too?

    1. I so know the feeling. It’s a very good question. The John Fosse book is itself a translation from Norwegian. Also James Joyce and Virginia Woolf etc are all translated into a million languages so I think the answer is that stream of consciousness is not just an anglophone obsession.