Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, written in the first person and the past tense, as if it’s a journal, introduces the reader to Barbara (a manipulative and controlling loner) who befriends Sheba (a young art teacher who initiates a destructive sexual relationship with a pupil). The story is told through Barbara’s ‘manuscript’, and it brilliantly reveals her middle-class prejudices, her pretty-minded reactions, and her troubling emotional need to control anyone she decides to befriend.
While there’s much to dislike about Barbara she’s inadvertently funny, and the reader can empathise with her loneliness and fear of humiliation. She also makes a great social observer. Part of the game the reader plays is separating her cutting honesty from her self-justifying delusions.
In The Girl on the Train another unreliable female protagonist, this time written in the first person and the present tense, as if the reader is ‘in her head’ listening to her thoughts, comes to terms with her alcoholism and an abusive relationship. Like Barbara, Rachel Watson’s ‘outsider’ status makes her an excellent vehicle for a running social commentary about deceit, hypocrisy, and superficiality in the people around her. This has to be balanced with her delusions as an unreliable narrator.
Barbara clearly has issues and can be seen as emotionally dysfunctional, and Rachel Watson is an alcoholic. Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, on the other hand, is on another level. She’s a sociopath with criminal tendencies. She murders her lover, lies to her husband, and later coerces him into compliant behaviour.
The portrayal of Barbara in the film adaptation of Notes on a Scandal differs from the novel. In the novel she’s weak and emotionally needy, a messed-up attention seeker, but in the film she is a calculating predator with a latent sexual interest in her victims. Subtle differences between the novel and the adaptation change her from a realistic but troubled character into a malicious predator. While the stakes are raised the story loses the subtle nuances of the original character.
Rachel Watson is out of control, attempting to rebuild her life. Barbara has reached a plateau of (dis)comfort with hers. She realises that she hasn’t amounted to anything. Her sense of loss is compensated by her smugly self-justifying judgements. Her emptiness is counteracted by her emotional need to latch-on to a person that she befriends and dominates.
Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (her name suggests that she’s ‘done’ something) controls her husband through fear and intimidation, and she even manipulates the media with her lies. The reader experiences her story through sections narrated by her husband, sections from her journal, and her own narration. Like Girl on a Train, Gone Girl is essentially a book of two halves an ‘unreliable’ setup followed by a reveal that leads to either a rebalancing, or a further unbalancing.
All three stories are to some extent mysteries: what’s the ‘scandal’, what destroyed Rachel Watson, and what is the truth behind the disappearance of Amy Dunne. Three unreliable female narrators provide vehicles for the authors to explore the values and behaviour of the characters around the protagonist, and wider society.