Unreliable Narration: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
If you haven't read the first post in this series, check it out here! This post will be an analysis of The Seven Death of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton in relation to unreliable narration and will reference definitions/ organization from the previous post. I also analyzed Gone Girl and Shutter Island, which will be referenced here.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is about a man, Aidden Bishop, who wakes up outside of a manor and does not remember who he is. As he tries to put together the pieces, he discovers he is in some sort of time loop in which he must solve a murder to escape.
Every day he enters the body of a different person and if he does not solve the mystery before he runs out of hosts, then he has to start all the way over from the beginning. The reader discovers Aiden Bishop’s unreliability at the beginning of the novel, unlike with Gone Girl where the revelation comes halfway through, and Shutter Island where it is near the end.
Similar to Teddy in Shutter Island, Aiden Bishop in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn
Hardcastle is a fallible narrator. However, Aiden is different because he knows he does not understand what is going on; whereas, Teddy thinks he understands reality.
Aiden realizes that his journey is, in part, to figure out who he is and why he is at Blackheath Mansion. Within the first chapter, Aiden wakes up and can’t remember who he is or why he is in the manor. He only knows that he believes someone was murdered (Turton 1-5). Aiden’s unreliability stems from this memory loss; thus, most of his lies and actions appear to be things he would not do if he knew the truth of the situation.
In fact, Aiden defends Anna, another main character, to perhaps an unreasonable amount (449). This is the opposite of what Aiden would do if he had his memories because the entire reason he came to Blackheath was to torture Anna, who is responsible for his sister’s death (453).
Aiden also struggles to understand how much of what he does is himself and how much is driven by the personality of the host he has for the day as can be seen when Aiden contemplates his relationship with his hosts by thinking, “are we shards of
the same soul, responsible for each other’s sins, or entirely different people, pale copies of some long forgotten original?” (87).
There is a strong theme of self choices vs. predestination throughout the work which plays nicely with the idea of a fallible narrator. What makes Aiden particularly interesting in relation to the other two protagonists is that he is not as cut and dry as they are. Amy is clearly untrustworthy, Teddy is clearly fallible, but what exactly is Aiden?
There is a passage in the book where Turton plays with the various types of unreliability. In the passage, Aiden is talking to the Plague Doctor. At this point Aiden knows he needs
to discover the murderer of a murder that looks like a suicide. He also knows that he will relive the same day repeatedly (only in different bodies) until he discovers the answer.
Turton uses this section to push our protagonist forward; to make him accept his task, even though he still feels like he is lacking key information. But this section also makes the reader take a keen interest in the truth behind Aiden’s personality and his trustworthiness.
The characters’ conversation about masks and identity in this section is no accident. Just like the readers are trying to peer behind the different faces Aiden wears, to find the real him inside, he wants to peel away the Plague Doctor’s mask. The Doctor gives both Aiden and the reader a warning when he says, “and you think stripping me away of my disguise will reveal it…a face is a mask of another sort” (178). It is another call for the reader to find the real Aiden and to not be led astray by what he appears to be.
It is important to note that the novel is in first person. Turton needed the first person since so much of the mystery is inside Aiden’s head. Such as in this passage when he says, “my mind is clogged up by a hundred small questions” (179). Again Turton returns us almost immediately to the idea that Aiden is simply fallible and not untrustworthy; however, the doubt exists.
Ever so subtly, Turton then forces us back to the argument within our minds when Aiden thinks, “his timidity revolts me” about a man scared by witnessing a murder (179). What man can’t feel empathy for someone in that situation? Who is guiding the reader through the journey of Blackheath, and why are they really here?
In the end, Aiden helps the man he finds revolting (179). Turton leaves the reader wondering: did he want to help the man or merely himself? The author plants these questions in just four pages. We are a quarter into the novel, and just when we thought we had some semblance of understanding, we learn how wrong we are. Our narrator is
more complex than the empty, fallible vessel we assumed him to be.
As one can see from all three examples, unreliable narration relies heavily on the three types laid out by Jacke in her article. Whether untrustworthy or fallible, the narrators’ lies and actions are driven by their cognitive distortions, which makes sense in hindsight. All three works chose to reveal the unreliable narration at different points: beginning, middle, and end which means that anything is an option but that they produce different reader reactions and sympathies. The author must play with ambiguity, choosing words that have double meanings, and create strong character drives for what they do, whether the general public think those drives warrant the actions caused by them.
Unreliable narration might be the most human type of narration, as we all are at some points untrustworthy and fallible in our perspectives. This type of writing is a complicated puzzle, indeed, but it makes the narrators real. I hope you enjoyed this series, which dived into the art of unreliable narration!
Turton, Stuart. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Raven Books, 2018.