Second person is not everyone’s favorite narrative style, and it can be a disconcerting storytelling method for many readers. Understandably, not everyone wants to be cornered by a narrator, stared directly in the face, and assigned a storyline in which they, the reader, participate as a main character. There are even some who have accused the narrative style as feeling disturbingly stalkerish, and therefore not a pleasurable read. But second person narration has its merits too.
What is second person point of view?
An unconventional relation, second person point of view speaks directly to readers, in the same way one would write a letter to a friend. E.g., "You sat down, and stared out the window."
This lets readers establish a unique and extraordinary intimacy with the narrator that the other narrative styles do not allow. Some may even find it enticing to be directly addressed by the book’s speaker and led smoothly through a highly personal journey. It is like a free tour, or a specialized voice-over of your life. “Prepare yourself. You are about to open a book…”
Second person narration for novels has been typically reserved for stories written in the epistolatory style—in the form of letters, notes, or emails exchanged between characters—and the exciting Choose Your Own Adventure novels that have been popularized by horror and/or fantasy authors such as R.L. Stine (directed at adventurous young readers who appreciate the privilege of options).
However, some writers of the past decade have been even more creative and experimental with second person and have used it as a means for exploring even deeper themes than being trapped in a haunted theme park à la Stine or exchanging tales about a seemingly endless monster-human revenge cycle à la Mary Shelley.
Here are three modern novels, directed at young adult and mature readers, that utilize the second person narrative style for chilling, thrilling, and unforgettable stories that are written for you, and no one else.
This is the book that was eagerly snatched up by Netflix for a popular series starring the irresistibly handsome and charming Penn Badgley. He was an excellent casting choice for hooking unsuspecting viewers, considering that his book counterpart isn’t half as endearing.
You by Caroline Kepnes is an intentionally dark and creepy thriller novel. Joe Goldberg, the protagonist, runs a bookstore in New York City. Like many of his books for sale, he has an attractive cover as a pleasant, amicable, down-to-earth working-class man. But lift the lovely façade and underneath you will find a vicious, self-righteous, and entitled psychopath.
Goldberg sets his sights on Guinevere Beck, a beautiful writer and college student whose big ego and emotional vulnerability offers Goldberg easy access into her life. Modern technology and possessing the mind of a calculating serial killer assist him in his relentless campaign to win Beck as a lover and alienate her completely from her family and friends. Throughout the novel, readers will experience being cast as Beck, to whom Goldberg inwardly relates his sinister romantic intentions. This is considered by many to be the book that solidified the reputation of the second person narrator as a shuddersome stalker. It’s that kind of book.
Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, a Montreal-based creative descended from French-Canadian avant-garde celebrities, hired a private investigator to piece together the mysterious life of her own grandmother, Suzanne Meloche. It's not hard to see why: in the early 1950s, Suzanne abandoned her husband and two children (one of whom was Barbeau-Lavalette’s mother) to chase a wayward existence as an artist, traveller, and unchained bohemian. With this baffling packet of information placed in her hands, Barbeau-Lavalette did the only thing she could do with it, as a seasoned writer: create a fictionalized autobiography of her tragic, controversial subject. With herself as the narrator.
Suzanne (La Femme qui fuit in its original French)is not an accusatory letter but rather a bittersweet, one-sided conversation between an absent grandmother and her forsaken granddaughter, whose only objective is to understand why.
Barbeau-Lavalette, knowing at the time of writing that there was no chance of forging a real connection with her runaway relative, speaks into the void. She narrates Suzanne’s chaotic and unbridled life for her while Suzanne lives it. Readers are given the opportunity to step into Suzanne’s skin and be led through countries, through relationships and love affairs, through jobs and political causes, but never quite setting roots anywhere. By the end, readers will be released from this shapeshifting spell and given leave to decide whether or not Suzanne should be forgiven for her choices.
The narrator of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s 2021 debut novel will never reveal their name, but they will readily reveal everything else. Love, passion, grief, vulnerability, outrage. Nothing is withheld from the reader, their new and welcome confidante. The author himself has revealed in a press feature for Penguin Books that the book’s second-person narration style was a very deliberate choice, with the purpose of including the readers, if they consent to being involved, in his own complicated grieving process, translated into fiction.
"I feel like I did this and then some. It is a joy to write but at times, quite heartbreaking. I guess, I’d love for readers not just to know what I’m saying, but to feel it too. The book is written in the second person so it’s very intimate, and in that way when a question is asked, I’m asking both myself and the reader. When I’m asking, how do you feel? That question comes both ways.”
In Open Water, the first liquid is actually beer. Two young professional artists have a chance encounter in a London pub and proceed to fall deeply in love with one another’s sensitive, unstoppably creative souls. And yet, both being Black British, they struggle to navigate their new relationship and find contentment in a world that too often mistakes its “celebration” of their black bodies for fetishization. How much can they give to each other, when deep-seated, centuries-old racism threatens to take everything from them?
“Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you did not ask for,” Nelson’s narrator, mysteriously anonymous but brave, asserts. “Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else.” While society continuously fails to remember that the two young lovers have feelings, the narrator refuses to let you, the reader, wade in such shallow waters.
“You’ve just finished reading a book list. Good for you. Now you have three more titles to add to that stack on your bedside table that just keeps growing and growing and forever growing…”