Coban, Harlan: Fool Me Once (2016)

Since the oppressing grey of autumn seems to be here to stay now, I want to use this post to remind myself of warmer, sunnier times – it’s time to review another beach (or in my case rather lakeside) read!

Harlan Coban’s thriller Fool Me Once fit the bill perfectly. It was a light and entertaining read with an interesting premise. However, I must admit: I wasn’t completely sold.

The interesting premise I just mentioned is given away in the blurb, so I don’t think I’ll be telling you too much if I introduce it: Maya, the protagonist, sees her recently murdered husband play with their daughter when she reviews the footage on her nanny cam.

This is the starting point from which Coban’s thriller seeks to investigate in how far we can trust our own eyes and how true the truths we believe in actually are. We get to witness Maya question herself, the footage and her sanity as she tries to figure out what it is she saw on the nanny cam and how it could be possible that she saw what she saw.

In the course of her investigation, Maya, a former special-ops pilot, turns out to be not only extremely controlling, but borderline paranoid, which is when the thriller introduces some general questions related to the subject matter – questions that I thought were pretty interesting, considering that they are becoming more and more relevant these days. The novel addresses the issue of privacy versus security, control and surveillance*, as well as ideas of transparency and availability of information versus secrecy and the protection of information that is not meant for public eyes**.

*See the debate about the use of security cameras in public places.

**See WikiLeaks et al.

Including these issues into the novel could have turned Fool Me Once into a really interesting and maybe even somewhat relevant read. However, the novel was prevented from reaching its full potential by Coban answering his own questions. One of the questions he asked was whether constant surveillance is an intrusion into our privacy and maybe to some extent even – ironically, if you consider the purpose of it – a security hazard. This question was answered during the course of the novel, as the benefits of Maya’s surveillance measures clearly outweighed any disadvantages, leaving me wondering whether it was Coban’s plan to use his novel to lobby for around the clock surveillance in public as well as in private, or whether he just failed to notice that a little bit of ambiguity might have been the way to go if his novel was supposed to make his readers think.

But oh well…I did say it was a beach read, didn’t I? Also, I didn’t mean to go on about this for as long as I did, since there are much more pressing issues I need to attend to regarding this novel. This is the point at which I should probably warn you to tune out if you want to avoid spoilers. For all those who do just that: thanks for reading this far & see you soon! =)

Now, if you’re still here, I guess it’s OK to spoiler away? Cool? Cool.

Here goes:

The reason why I ultimately decided that I didn’t like the novel as much as I could have is…

…the narrator!

The only reason why the novel was suspenseful up to a certain point was that the narration is weird. Fool Me Once is narrated by a third person narrator who – on the face of it – has complete insight into Maya’s thoughts and feelings. We learn about her nightmares, her paranoia, her urge to protect her daughter and so on. However, even though it seems like the narrator is telling us everything we should know about the situation and Maya, they’re leaving out a very important piece of information up to the very end for no discernible reason other than that Harlan Coben needed us not to know this in order to keep up the suspense.

Now I know this tactic to be called unreliable narration. Unreliable narration is great – I love it, bring it on! But please, please, please, don’t mask it by employing a third person, seemingly impartial narrator! If you’re going to have an unreliable narrator, I’d like to at least be given a chance at figuring out the narrator’s unreliability. I really fail to see what reason an extradiegetic narrator could possibly have to lie to the reader. There are all sorts of reasons as to why a narrator could be unreliable. The most common ones are probably that the narrator is too young to truly grasp what’s going on or that they’re suffering from some kind of mental illness/impairment that prevents them from perceiving/telling the truth. Speaking of ‘the truth’: even blatant lying is permissible for an unreliable narrator, but not for a narrator who poses as your standard run of the mill third person story teller*


*, in my opinion. One is supposed to always add ‘in my opinion’ after rants like this – even though I still fail to see whose opinion it should be if not mine.

Tell me: 

Who’s your favourite unreliable narrator?


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