Book lists

8 great novels written in the second person

Writing a novel using the second-person point of view — where the narrator tells the story to another character using the word “you” — is a difficult feat to pull off. In the wrong hands, it can feel tedious and wearing; in the right hands, it can elevate a novel into something really special, making you, the reader, feel implicated in the tale.

Over the years I’ve read several (mainly Irish) novels adopting this point of view — and they’ve all been exceptionally great tales.

Here is a list of books I have read that use the second-person point of view. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review.

‘Spill Simmer Falter Wither’ by Sara Baume

This debut novel from 2015 follows the up-and-down relationship between one man, a social misfit called Ray, and his rescue dog, whom he dubs “One Eye”, across four seasons — the spill, simmer, falter, wither of the title. Written in the present tense, with Ray addressing everything to the dog, it reveals how loss and loneliness can be alleviated by the love of a loyal pet. But it’s also a dark and disturbing look at what can happen to those people who fall through the cracks, who never fit in and are misjudged or cast out by society at large.

The sound of my voice
‘The Sound of My Voice’ by Ron Butlin

This five-star black comedy, first published in 1987 but reissued in 2018, is very much about the lies we tell ourselves to get by. It is narrated by Morris Magellan, an executive in a biscuit factory, using a self-deprecating voice that is filled with sophistry and self-deception. On the surface, it appears that Morris has it all, including an important job, a devoted wife, two children and a home of his own, but he’s a high-functioning alcoholic whose self-destructive behaviour is at odds with his own high opinion of himself.  The use of the second-person narrative puts us right in Morris’ head, making us complicit in his crimes and unable to restrain the worst of his excesses.

‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty

This dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks, is about an illicit affair between a highly successful geneticist and a man she thinks might be a spy. When this exceptionally well-plotted story opens all we know is that the main character, Yvonne, is in the dock at the Old Bailey, answering to the charge of murder. What we don’t know is who she has murdered and why. The second-person voice that is employed conveys Yvonne’s constant disbelief that her ordinary dull and predictable life has come to this. It makes for a truly compelling read.

Montpelier Parade
‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Set in Dublin in the 1970s, this is an unconventional story about forbidden love, which is melancholy and bittersweet. Written entirely in the second person from a teenage boy’s perspective, it charts the relationship he has with a much older woman whom he rescues after a failed suicide attempt. As well as being about their illicit affair, the novel also explores class differences and what happens when others decide the path we should follow. Perfectly paced, it works its gentle, poetic way towards a heart-breaking climax. Expect to be devastated when you get to the end.

‘The Book of Rapture’ by Nikki Gemmell

First published in 2009, this strangely haunting dystopian novel is narrated in the second person by a married woman whose involvement in a top-secret scientific project has put her life, and the lives of her young family, in danger. To protect her children from the security forces she has them drugged and spirited away to a secret hiding place. The narrator’s omnipresent voice means you experience the children’s actions through the mother’s loving eyes, and so when she is fearful for them the tension ratchets up a few notches, making this a particular heart-hammering read. It’s a tale that explores many issues, including science and religion, but its main theme is about the ability of humans to grow and change — for the better.

‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney

This black comedy revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine; by night he’s out clubbing with his best friend, doing drugs and trying to hook up with women for one-night stands. The entire narrative — fast-paced and based on a series of set pieces — is told in the second person employing a voice that is, by turns, self-deprecating and pathetic. But while it’s mostly hilarious, the story is undercut by deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships. Highly recommended.

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

A lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story, You is about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life. Set in Dublin in the 1980s, it is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty, funny, opinionated, cheeky and fiercely independent. You get pulled into the story because of her voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel particularly immediate, heart-breaking — and real.

‘Ghost Light’ by Joseph O’Connor

Ghost Light charts the rise and fall of real-life Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill (1885-1952), who performed under the stage name Molly Allgood and was engaged to playwright John Millington Synge, a Protestant 14 years her senior. Told in the second person, it’s an intimate account of Molly’s life from her time as the rising star of the Abbey Theatre to a now-elderly woman living in London, in such dire straits she’s prepared to sell her most precious possession — a love letter from Synge — in exchange for a bottle of booze. Molly’s feisty, humourous voice, married with her desperation, her poverty and her dependence on alcohol, makes her story an incredibly moving one.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend a great novel written in the second person?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2013

Books-of-the-yearIt’s that time of year again when I sit down, look back over everything I’ve read in the past 12 months and draw up a list of my Top 10 reads.

After much umming and aching, these are the books I’ve selected.

They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Click on the book’s title to see my review in full.



The Orenda
by Joseph Boyden (2013)
Set in the 17th century, The Orenda plunges the reader into the vast wilderness of Eastern Canada and takes us on a sometimes terrifying, occasionally humorous, but always fascinating journey following members of the Huron nation as they go about their daily lives over the course of many seasons.


Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty (2013)
Set in modern day London, this is a dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks. It is arguably the best of the genre I’ve read this year.

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)
Under the Skin swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments along the way. It is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

Eventide by Kent Haruf (2005)
Eventide is the second book in a loose trilogy of novels set in Holt, Colorado. There is nothing sentimental or saccharine in the understated, almost flat, narrative. But somehow, in its storytelling, in its evocation of place and spirit, in the characters’ raw and truthful actions, you get so caught up in everyone’s lives that you cannot help but feel deeply moved.

Of Human Bondage
by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)
I loved this book so much, that I struggled to write a review that would do it justice, so this is the only novel on the list that isn’t reviewed on the blogIt follows the life and times of Philip Carey, an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It is at times a horrifying and heartbreaking  read, because Philip is a true loner and constantly struggles to find his place in the world. He is not entirely a likable character — indeed his relationship with Mildred, a waitress, borders on masochistic obsession — but I found his story a completely compelling one.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (2013)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is about a young woman’s relationship with her older brother, who suffers a brain tumour in childhood that later returns when he is a young man. Spanning roughly 20 years and set largely in an isolated farming community in the west of Ireland, it is highly original, bold, confronting — and Joycean.


The Tivington Nott by Alex Miller (1989)
The Tivington Nott is an extraordinarily vivid account of one young man’s participation in a stag hunt on the Exmoor borders in 1952 and is filled with beautiful descriptions of Nature and the countryside — “the last ancient homeland of the wild red deer in England” — as well as depicting the bond between horse and rider like nothing I have ever read before.


Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)
Tampa tells the story of a female teacher who preys on teenage boys. It one of the most outrageous books I’ve ever read. It’s confronting, disturbing and, well, icky, but the voice of the narrator, which is wondrous in its sheer bravado, wickedness, narcissism and wit, is utterly compelling.


Wonder by R. J. Palacio (2012)
Wonder tells the tale of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman, who was born with a serious facial deformity. He has been home-educated, but now his parents think it is time he attended a mainstream school. The book chronicles his efforts to fit in and become accepted by his peers at Beecher Prep. It is a book with universal appeal, one that genuinely warms the heart and brings tears to the eyes.


The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (2013)
The Mussel Feast is a tale about a woman and her two teenage children sitting around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the story is also a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, London, Louise Doughty, Publisher, Setting

‘Apple Tree Yard’ by Louise Doughty


Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber and Faber; 358 pages; 2013.

Louise Doughty‘s Apple Tree Yard is a dark, smart and sexy psychological-thriller-cum-court-room-drama, full of twists, turns and unexpected shocks. It is arguably the best of the genre I’ve read this year.

Adulterous affair

Yvonne Carmichael, 52, is a highly successful geneticist who is happily married with two adult children. But one day, while attending a House of Commons Standing Committee hearing — where she is presenting evidence — she meets a man to whom she is immediately attracted.

They strike up a conversation and he takes her on a lunch-time tour of the crypt, where they end up having sex — and from this one spontaneous and illicit act the rest of Yvonne’s steady suburban life spirals out of control.

What follows is a highly charged affair in which Yvonne and her unnamed lover meet in cafes and side streets, sharing little of their lives outside of their new clandestine relationship. In fact, Yvonne is so swept up in the romance of it all that she is convinced that her lover works for British secret services — why else would he be so non-communicative about his normal life?

Unusual structure

The structure of this novel is unusual. It starts mid-way through the story arc, when Yvonne is in the dock at the Old Bailey, answering to the charge of murder. What you don’t know is who she has murdered and why, nor who her co-conspirator is.

The story backtracks to the beginning of her affair and from there the reader is kept in an almost constant state of tension. The story is exceptionally well plotted and Yvonne’s voice — one of constant disbelief that her ordinary dull and predictable life has come to this — is believable. Here’s an example of that voice — the reader is addressed as “you” throughout the entire novel:

Then, after a long while, you do something that will endear you to me
when I think about it later. You pause. You stop kissing me, withdraw
your face, and as I open my eyes I see you are looking into mine. You
still have one hand in my hair, your fingers entwined.

Fast-paced and suspenseful

Doughty is very good at moving events along quickly without compromising on detail. Indeed, London — particularly the area around Westminster and Embankment — comes alive in these pages to the point of it being an extra character in its own right.

And she’s an expert at dropping in little nuggets of information that add a new twist to the story. Yet nothing feels forced or added on; it all flows naturally and reads effortlessly.

Apple Tree Yard is a very good look at the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions. It’s a thoroughly absorbing and intelligent read with a dark edge and bucketloads of suspense — and it’s set to be one of my favourite books of 2013.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Louise Doughty, Publisher, Setting

‘Whatever You Love’ by Louise Doughty


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 320 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If I was going to recommend a light, entertaining read, something that goes down easily without having to think about it too much, I’d suggest this one. Louise Doughty‘s ninth novel, Whatever You Love, isn’t high-brow literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it is accessible and enjoyable, and I suspect when it’s released in trade paperback size it will do very nicely sales wise, thank-you very much.

The story is told in the first-person by a young mother of two, Laura, who has just lost her oldest child, 9-year-old Betty, in a hit-and-run road accident. The tragedy occurs on the very first night Betty is allowed to walk to her after-school dance class, accompanied by her best friend, instead of being collected by an adult.

Because of this key event in the novel, I had expected the narrative to be a fairly grim one in which Laura — a divorcee still coming to terms with her ex-husband’s infidelity three years earlier — wallows in despair. But while it features it’s fair share of hand-wringing and woe-is-me naval gazing, the book is more akin to a psychological thriller (think Nicci French) than a misery memoir.

The tautly written narrative is split into four parts that alternate between Laura’s life before Betty’s death, and life after. From the outset there are clear hints that Laura, a part-time physiotherapist, is not the most emotionally stable person. In her youth she was burdened with the care of her widowed mother who developed Parkinson’s disease. Then, the first serious romance she experiences, turns into a feverish, whirlwind courtship bordering on sexual obsession.

That romance turns into marriage, two children and a nice little terrace house in a British seaside town. But it all comes to an end when she suspects her husband of having an affair when their son Rees is just an infant.

Paranoia ensues when Laura begins receiving anonymous telephone calls, only to be heightened when poison pen letters, blaming her for the marriage breakdown, begin to arrive. By the time of Betty’s death, Laura doesn’t need much to tip her over the edge. It’s only when she hits upon the idea of revenge — seeking out the driver responsible for killing Betty — that she enters morally dubious territory indicative of a disturbed mind.

While the story never slides into all-out farce, it’s a little melodramatic in places. And if you can forgive Laura’s slightly wearing narrative voice, then you will appreciate Doughty’s portrait of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The setting — an unnamed English seaside town over-run by immigrant workers — has the requisite seedy atmosphere, although the community tension angle feels slightly forced.

However, where the story works best is Doughty’s exploration of family relationships, particularly the ways in which parents are bound together forever despite any subsequent marriage breakdown.

A portrait of bereavement, jealousy and rage, Whatever You Love is a tense, well-plotted read. If you liked Rebecca Frayn’s Deceptions it’s fair to say you’ll probably like this one too.