The narrative technique of Water for Elephants is more complicated than it might appear appears. Sure, there's just one narrator throughout, Jacob, who tells us his life story. But actually he's telling us two life stories – the story of the most exciting period in his life, when he worked for the circus, and the story of probably the least exciting period in his life, waiting out his final days in the nursing home. In one story he's falling in love, and in the other he's all alone.
The narrative moves back and forth frequently between these two times in Jacob's life, and the events and even people from one era start blending into the other. This reinforces the fact that Jacob is getting old and his memory is starting to fail.
For this reason, you might say that Jacob is an unreliable narrator. Certainly others at the old folks' home, like McGuinty, are unreliable narrators of their own lives. And although Jacob's knowledge of the circus seems real, we can't sure. But even if he's stretching the truth a little, what's the harm in that? It makes for a better story in the end.
What would we miss out on if this story were narrated in the third person? And why Jacob? Why not use Marlena's point of view? She's even more involved in circus drama, after all. What do you think?