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’ 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’ 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?