On unreliable narrators

The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E Nesbit tells the story of six siblings whose father has fallen on hard times, and they are attempting to restore ‘the fallen fortune of the Bastables’ by seeking treasure. Each sibling comes up with a way to find treasure or seek their fortune, and the book is the story of all their misadventures finding all sorts of treasure (often in the form of a shilling or a half crown).

The Story of the Treasure Seekers is narrated by one of the six children, but the narrator tells us in the first chapter that he will not reveal his identity, and that he bets us we won’t be able to guess who he is until he reveals himself at the end of the story. However, the narrator often accidentally slips into using ‘I’, so it is possible to work out who he is, as well as his constant (and very biased) praise of the actions of one of the children in particular. I won’t reveal who it is – half the fun in the first few chapters, if you do read The Story of the  Treasure Seekers is piecing together clues and finding little confirmations as to the identity of the narrator (it won’t take you very long though – the narrator is rather boastful).

I find the idea of an unreliable narrator interesting. In some books, movies or television shows, you do not work out that the narrator hasn’t been telling you the whole truth until the end, like in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. It is only looking back at the pages you have read that you realise how little clues were planted throughout the text – you were just too blind to see them! However, practically from the beginning of The Story of the Treasure Seekers you know that the narrator has a rather skewed view of the world, and of his generosity, gentlemanly-ness, selfishness and kindness, and it leads you to giggling at his pompousness. It takes a very skilled writer, I think, to create this sort of balance – a character where the reader knows exactly how much to believe him, and how much to doubt his word.

I have read 3 Nesbit books now, 2 for the 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up list (the other being The Railway Children) and 1  several months before I started on the list (The Enchanted Castle), and, surprisingly for me, I have enjoyed the two set firmly in reality more than the one sprinkled with magic. I think it is because the children in The Railway Children and The Story of the Treasure Seekers are quite real. I can’t remember where, but I recently read that E. Nesbit was one of the first authors to write children as they actually are –  squabbles and all. Children are not always darlings. They argue, they fight, they make up, they have faults. E. Nesbit’s children are real, even if they are real in a bookish, Victorian sort of way. I kind of wish I was real in a bookish, Victorian sort of way. It sounds like a lot of fun.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: On being a literary detective | 1001 Children's Books

  2. Pingback: On where the list of 1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up (Too Much) comes from | 1001 Children's Books

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