The Storyteller by Kate Armstrong is a novel that is anything but conventional. It transgresses boundaries of storytelling itself; of narrative structures, of characters and consciousness. It’s truly unique and ground-breaking in how Armstrong shapes her story.
The Storyteller follows the story of two women, Iris and Rachel, who are linked by the facility where they attempt to recover from their illness. They reach an understanding that allows Iris to pen Rachel’s story to share with the world. Iris is a writer, and so she picks up her book and begins to transcribe Rachel’s story. And this is where the reader comes in, as we hear Rachel’s story through a hazy film of doubt. We hear Rachel’s story through Iris’ eyes, constantly left to wonder whether this is Rachel’s story at all.
There is something truly brilliant in the way Armstrong layers her narrative within another narrative. It creates both distance and proximity. Armstrong makes Rachel’s story our own; narrating her in the second person in a way that makes Rachel’s story incredibly personal and heartfelt. Which is perhaps why when Iris takes leave of the second person narrative, delving into her own stories, there’s something disturbing about the distance that creates. While it becomes all too easy to get lost in Rachel’s story, Armstrong makes it prominent that this is not simply Iris’ attempt at writing down Rachel’s story for us readers. There’s something more at play.
While Rachel’s narrative unfolds, layered within it, Iris’ story too is unfolding. She is presented to us, from the start as an older woman who is wise in the ways of the world. However, the more we learn about Iris and her life, the more we realise that she’s far from the wise woman penning down Rachel’s story and giving her advice. Instead, her motivations are clouded with doubt. Does Iris truly want to tell Rachel’s story? Or is her attempt at writing Rachel’s biography simply an attempt to live vicariously through her? Armstrong doesn’t give you any of these answers, leaving the reader to work everything out by themselves.
What I love about The Storyteller is how vivid it is. Armstrong’s writing is thorough and sensual. You don’t simply read Rachel and Iris’ story, you experience it. Her descriptions of mental illness are starkly authentic. She perfectly captures the disconnect, isolation and inability express oneself.
The Storyteller is one of those novels that you have to experience to truly understand its complexity and beauty.