Unreliable narrator(s)

Typically, a third-person narrative offers (at best) a picture of objective reality, or at least a world-view that is easily identified as biased in a particular way. But a first-person narrator has no obligation to offer the facts of a recognizable history—that person is free to substitute his or her own perceptions and interpretations, given without third-party corroboration to demonstrate them as accurate. Personal bias is included in those perceptions, but is not recognized by the narrator, who treats his own view as if it is “the truth,” and the reader must then decide whether to believe it.

In Alice Feeney’s book Rock Paper Scissors, we have three personal narratives—those of Adam and Amelia Wright, a married couple who are (supposedly at least) both attempting to put their floundering marriage right with the help of a weekend “away,” and also that of a third person who comes along later in the story. The narrative jumps back and forth between Adam and Amelia for the first half or so of the book before broadening to include this third person, and we are serially treated to each character’s view of “the facts” about the other person, the relationship, and their individual and shared back history.

This is a nice set-up for what is supposed to be a rather dark tale of suspense. In a good suspense novel, the protagonists become aware of danger only gradually, with a subtle build influenced by the setting and mood, and with conflict present in every scene. The characters must start out in a state of slight uneasiness that builds to confusion, upset, and perhaps terror. And a good suspense book, of course, builds in a series of reveals or surprises up until the final one, keeping the reader uncertain about the outcome. The whole thing is about what may happen, about anticipation.

The tricky balance to this kind of book—and where Rock Paper Scissors lost me—is the reader’s identification with one or more of the narrators. In a suspense novel, the narrators are by definition unreliable, because that’s how the story arrives at its twists. But just because they are unreliable, does it follow that they must also be unlikeable? Adam Wright is a pompous, self-involved screenwriter with little regard for anything outside the boundaries of his ambition. Amelia Wright, apart from her work at the Battersea Dog Shelter, is equally narcissistic, expecting more from Adam than he is willing or able to give and therefore living in a constant state of disappointment with her life and her marriage. The idea that a weekend alone together in picturesque Scotland, in a converted chapel on the shores of a loch, could fix what’s wrong with these two is laughable. But that’s the scene when the story opens, as the two drive Amelia’s ancient car through a blinding snowstorm trying to reach their destination before they run out of gas or the snow strands them miles from civilization.

From the first page, each is cataloging the negligence, insensitivity, and mean little tricks of the other. By the end of the first couple of chapters I already heartily disliked the both of them, and almost put the book down at the point where they reach their destination, because it seemed like things would just continue to disintegrate. Curiosity about the back story that landed them here kept me going, but I should have listened to my first intuition and stopped reading.

It wasn’t just that Adam and Amelia were so dislikeable; the writing, too, and the pacing of the story were subtly off. The situation at their weekend retreat is purposely amped up to the point where I kept saying “Oh, c’mon!” at regular intervals. There were too many hints from both sides that each knew something that would fatefully impact the other, but the portents seemed too extreme and too abrupt to happen during a weekend in the country; also, the revelations didn’t unfold until so late in the book that I honestly think the author forgot she had inserted some of them, because they just never jelled, provoking an anticlimactic feeling about the entire story. And while the big twists were definitely momentous, given to whom they were happening, I just didn’t care.

Also, I thought the epilogue was idiotic.

I always struggle with whether to write a negative review, especially when it is a book that has been enjoyed and acclaimed by many. This one receives a preponderance of four stars on Goodreads, probably due to the fact that the “twists” are powerful. But the writing was clunky and full of clichés, the pacing alternated between maddeningly slow and overly dramatic for about 50 percent of the book, and the characters seemed flat and boring to me. The worst part was the many ominous hints that never panned out.

So the question for you is, when you are reading a psychological novel of suspense, is it more important to you that the writing, characters, and plot be of a certain quality, or that the author is able to pull off one or more true surprises? I obviously came down on the side of the former, but perhaps most people who are reading suspense appreciate the latter enough to be forgiving about the rest? I am personally feeling a bit disgruntled with Alice Feeney at the moment, because I wish I hadn’t invested the time and attention on her story.

And finally, I just want to say that everyone knows how to win or lose at rock-paper-scissors, so the idea of using it as a decider with someone you know so well that you can predict their response is, well, dumb.

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