If you’re not great with names, getting to the end of a book and realising that you don’t remember the narrator’s name might not be a big deal. But for the rest of us, it can be unsettling to realise you don’t know the most basic fact about the character you’ve spent 300+ pages with. Writers have many reasons for leaving their narrators unnamed, some of them good and some of them silly. Here are ten books with unnamed narrators.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca is one of the classic books with unnamed narrators. People who haven’t read it usually – quite reasonably – assume that the titular character is the main one, the one telling the story, but du Maurier has a surprise in store. The narrator is, in fact, the woman who marries Rebecca’s widower. She moves into Rebecca’s house, becomes mistress of Rebecca’s staff, and despite her best efforts, can’t escape the looming specter of Rebecca everywhere she turns. The fact that du Maurier never tells us her name has been interpreted many ways, but most readers accept that it symbolises the narrator’s submission both in the narrative and in the broader social context of women’s limited roles. Read my full review of Rebecca here.
My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
The narrator of My Year Of Rest And Relaxation is one of the most repellent yet fascinating characters in all of contemporary fiction. The fact that she’s an unnamed narrator is almost beside the point. This young woman is, by her own admission, laughably privileged, incredibly hot, and unbelievably self-absorbed. She decides to use her wealth and security to live the clinomaniac dream of sleeping for an entire year. She hoodwinks an eccentric psychiatrist into prescribing massive doses of sleeping pills, and takes to her bed. Ottessa Moshfegh is the master of crafting compelling characters who are simultaneously revolting, and this unnamed narrator is one of her finest.
I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid
It won’t take you long to realise that something’s hinky in I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, and the fact that the narrator doesn’t have a name is your first clue. She’s in a car with her boyfriend (who is named, why?), driving to his parent’s place to meet them for the first time, and all the while she’s thinking about ending things. When they reach the farmhouse, things just get weirder. I’m not ashamed to admit that this book terrified the pants off me, and I read it all in one night to avoid having nightmares by putting it down and going to bed half-way through. So, if you like unnamed narrators and nightmare fuel, this is the book for you! Read my full review of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things here.
Milkman by Anna Burns
The narrator of Anna Burns’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Milkman, is technically unnamed… but also kind of not? She’s also not special, in the narrative world Burns has created. The city in which she lives isn’t named (even though it’s pretty obviously Belfast), and neither are her family members, her “maybe-boyfriend”, nor her stalker. She refers to herself as “maybe-girlfriend” and “middle sister”, so she has monikers of sorts, but as far as Official “Real” Names go? Nada! This is a heavy-handed but effective allusion to the culture of silence that surrounded the Troubles. Read my full review of Milkman here.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
What is it with Booker Prize winners and unnamed narrators? Here’s another one: The Sellout. It’s a “biting satire” about a young man at the heart of a race trial that goes all the way to the Supreme Court… but it’s not what you think. After his controversial sociologist father dies, leaving not a penny and no trace of his promised “memoir” that would solve the family’s financial woes, our “hero” takes the questionable path of seeking to reinstate slavery and segregation in his small Californian town. This audacious novel will have your jaw dropping and your sides splitting, from start to finish.
Apex Hides The Hurt by Colson Whitehead
What would you expect from a “comic tour de force about identity, history, and the adhesive bandage industry”? Pretty much everything you get in Apex Hides The Hurt, one of Colson Whitehead’s lesser-known but no-less-wonderful novels. It gets the gong for the best use of irony when it comes to unnamed narrators, because in this case, the anonymous protagonist is a nomenclature consultant. That’s right, you’ve got an unnamed narrator who is an expert on names – how funny is that? This is a fun read with a twist, perfect to power through on a quiet weekend.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
The Memory Police is a Kafkaesque novel that clearly owes a huge debt to Nineteen Eighty-Four. The unnamed narrator in this one is a novelist, living on an unnamed island which is under the control of the titular authoritarian force. Through an unexplained and seemingly random mechanism, everyone who lives on the island is forced to “forget” objects or concepts. Uniformed enforcement officers patrol the island, making sure the “forgotten” items are truly gone and anyone who gives the appearance of remembering them is disappeared. I suppose unnamed narrators are par for the course when anything could lose its name at any time? Read my full review of The Memory Police here.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
One of the most iconic unnamed narrators of the fifty years is undoubtedly Offred, the pseudonymous protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Well, if you’re a purist, anyway. If you read the original text as a standalone, the woman drafted into reproducing for infertile couples under the Gilead regime is forced to shed her name, so the reader never learns it – she is called “Offred”, as in “of” the man who “owns” her. If you’ve read or watched any of the accompanying stories – the sequel The Testaments, or the HBO adaptation – you’ll know that Offred’s true name (well, more than one of them, actually) was revealed. But the fact remains that stripping her of her name was an important symbol in Atwood’s feminist dystopia. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier
Okay, technically – technically – the titular character in Pizza Girl does, eventually, get a name. But she’s unnamed for so much of the novel, I’ve decided she belongs in the hall of unnamed narrators. Besides, her name is mentioned so briefly, skimmers would totally miss it. The eighteen-year-old pizza delivery driver is a lost soul, desperate to drum up some kind of excitement about her pregnancy (the way everyone else in her life seems to) and determined not to grieve the loss of her alcoholic father. Being such a searing insight into depression and loss of direction, it just makes sense that she would be nameless. Read my full review of Pizza Girl here.
If Cats Disappeared From The World by Genki Kawamura
In If Cats Disappeared From The World, the cat has the cutest name ever: Cabbage! It’s almost cute enough to make you overlook the fact that the narrator remains unnamed. He has a fascinating story to tell, though. The young postman learns that he has only months to live, and shortly thereafter, the devil shows up to offer him a deal. Our unnamed narrator will be offered an extra day of life, as long as he chooses one thing to disappear from the world forever. “With each object that disappears, the postman reflects on the life he’s lived, his joys and regrets, and the people he’s loved and lost,” (as per the blurb).