7 Unputdownable Books Written from Multiple “First-Person” Perspectives

Below are seven books written from a multiple “first-person” perspective. More often than not, this perspective is employed when a narrative concerns some unusual or psychologically complex situation whereby it would be interesting for the reader to find out the reactions of more than one person to some event unfolding. Such a perspective can offer a valuable insight, and the use of unreliable narrators may heighten the intrigue.

I. The Beguiled/A Painted Devil [1966] by Thomas P. Cullinan

This historical fiction has more psychological depth than first meets the eye. It tells the story of a teacher and pupils at a girls’ school during the Civil War, who take in one injured soldier they spotted lying near their school. The author handles his multiple “first-person” perspectives brilliantly, showing the different personalities of the girls, as their self-interests and private desires start to collide with the concern for the soldier’s well-being. Sofia Coppola’s 2017 adaptation of this book missed the subtle points of Cullinan’s novel.

II. The Last House on Needless Street [2021] by Catriona Ward

This horror book’s multiple narrators are designed to unsettle the reader. First, there is heavy-drinking Ted, who lives in the last house on Needless Street. Then, there is his daughter Lauren, who is not allowed outside, and, lastly, comes the family’s religion-minded cat Olivia. It is an exciting, disturbing book that focuses on one missing girl, and filled with secrets and unreliable narrators.

III. The Poisonwood Bible [1998] by Barbara Kingsolver 

This book takes place in the Belgian Congo in the late 1950s/early 1960, following the life of a family of a missionary priest Nathan Price. We read the story primarily from the perspectives of his wife Orleanna and daughters: unruly Rachel, tomboy twins Leah and Adah, and little Ruth. In my opinion, the book would have been an evocative literary masterpiece if Kingsolver did not then go and ruin her story in the last one hundred pages or so.

IV. The Help [2009] by Kathryn Stockett

Stockett’s historical fiction centres on African American maids working for rich, white households in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s. We read the story from the “first-person” perspectives of maid Aibileen, maid Minny, and budding writer Miss Skeeter. Apparently, no one initially wanted to publish this book, and the author received some 60 rejection letters over 3 and a half years. She persevered, however, and the result is her best-seller and an award-winning film adaptation.

V. My Name is Red [1998] by Orhan Pamuk

This is a rich, unputdownable murder mystery that also includes meditations on life, history and art and, surely, must be the best novel of Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. The novel is told from numerous unusual “first-person” perspectives, for example that of the miniaturists (“Stork”, “Olive” and “Butterfly”) working to produce the latest masterpiece for the Sultan, and who become each a suspect in the murder of another miniaturist Elegant Effendi (who is also provided with a voice).

VI. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao [2007] by Junot Díaz

This coming-of-age novel tells the life of Oscar Wao, a Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey. The novel features both a “first-person” and “second-person” narration. Narrators include Yunior (probably Oscar’s alter ego), who analyses and comments on the events of the novel, as well Oscar’s sister Lola. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was described as a metafiction of the highest order.

VII. The Sea and Poison [1957] by Shūsaku Endō

This book about one Japanese hospital’s gruesome experiment in the last months of the World War II comes from the author behind the best-seller Silence. The story is partly based on a real story, and Endō relates the events that led up to the unlawful operation on unsuspecting American prisoners-of-war from the perspectives of lonely Nurse Ueda and frightened intern Suguro, among others.

Do you enjoy books with multiple “first-person” narrators? Do you think this literary device lends something special or insightful to a narrative? Do you find such books intriguing or maybe simply unnecessarily confusing? Do you know any other books where this type of narration was successfully employed?

13 thoughts on “7 Unputdownable Books Written from Multiple “First-Person” Perspectives

  1. Well yes a great master of this technique is probably William Faulkner, with 15 narratives in “As I Lay Dying” and four in “The Sound and the Fury”. His wild variation in style for each narrator is particularly impressive.

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  2. I suppose the first example of multiple first-person accounts I read as a teen was Treasure Island, and though I’m sure I’ve read similar narratives since I’d not considered this as a categorisable approach or genre. Maybe if there were too many such accounts in a novel I’d find it confusing and even irritating, but to see events from another character’s point of view can be, and should be, enlightening.

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  3. The first time I knowingly encountered multiple first-person accounts was seeing the play Rashomon. The perspective can be very powerful (I was disturbed by reading The Last House on Needless Street).

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  4. Thoroughly enjoyed My Name is Red, I’m hoping Pamuk’s new book is in that line. I find multiple first-person narratives especially appealing, they add a depth and roundness to the story if done well. Another I’ll add to your wonderful list is Julia Alvarez’s ‘In the Time of the Butterflies’ and cheating a little, Louise Erdrich’s ‘Love Medicine’, which has a combination of multiple first and third person voices.

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    1. To be honest, I actually ended up disliking Pamuk’s Nights of Plague (though Pamuk remains one of my favourite authors ever). I wanted to write a review of it, but decided against it. I have many reasons, but, overall, I would compare it rather unfavourably to Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which I now consider his masterpiece. I normally enjoy any in-depth look into epidemics, quarantine measures and just love exploring the history of medicine, but there is no denying that those who read Pamuk’s previous books must find him in his latest book rather self-indulgent, overlong (to varying degrees), and almost without his usual narrative complexity or character subtlety. I wasn’t a fan of its English translation either. I believe My Name is Red won translation awards, and I think we have a different translator here.

      Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies is a great suggestion, and I am unfamiliar with Erdrich’s Love Machine. I will have to take a look. There is still a number of Erdrich’s novels that I am dying to read, including The Night Watchman and The Sentence.

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      1. Oh dear. I’m sorry to hear that the Pamuk was such a disappointment, I’ve seen others mention the self-indulgence and unnecessary length. I agree with you about ‘My Name is Red’ being his masterpiece, I also have fond memories of ‘The Black Book’ and ‘Istanbul’ because of a reading accident. I had started ‘The Black Book’, but was struggling a bit and then picked up ‘Istanbul’ and read the two concurrently, which made for an intriguing portrayal of the city.

        I think Erdrich’s ‘Love Medicine’ is her first novel, she is an author that has such a varied and extensive body of work, I sometimes think about doing a chronological reading project of her work.

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