Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Reading songs of praise by various critics – totally original (David Baldacci), brilliant (Stephen Fry), smart, sophisticated suspense (Lee Child) – I found it difficult to wait until I could get my hands on my copy of The Silent Patient. My wait was well rewarded.
The story opens with a prologue in which Alicia Berenson informs the reader that her husband whom she loves very, very much has insisted that she keep a journal. She stresses that she loves her husband so much that she cannot bear the thought that he might be worrying about her or she might be causing him pain.
Part One opens with “Alicia Berenson was thirty-three years old when she killed her husband” (7). From there the story focusses on whether a psychotherapist can get Alicia, having been found guilty of murder while of unsound mind, to speak after she has remained silent over several years in a mental facility. Nobody can persuade her to talk. “Her enduring silence turned this story from a commonplace domestic tragedy into something far grander: a mystery, an enigma that gripped the headlines and captured the public imagination for months to come” (9).
Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is certain that, given time, he can unlock the secrets of Alicia’s mind. The novel becomes a suspenseful tale of Alicia’s intransigence and a therapist who becomes obsessed with the task ahead of him. Faber’s colleagues are not the upright citizens they might have been. There is drug dealing and hostile acts against the person; there is a power struggle between an administrator and a professor, and the playing off for favours of one person against another.
Faber is a psychotherapist new to this particular facility. As he begins working with Alicia he makes the acquaintance of a mental patient, a woman who is very large and is very demanding. She plays a significant part in the story. And so we find Alicia at the centre of a world that rarely sees characters from outside the bubble. Alicia paints at Faber’s suggestion, and her painting gives him the idea of tracking her paintings through her ex-agent. In so doing he begins to understand where he believes Alicia might be coming from. However, the whole affair is fraught with other factors, significant or otherwise. The word ‘Alcestis’, the name Alicia had given her painting, becomes significant in a secondary sense. However, as so many have indicated in other reviews, the outcome is not what even the most perceptive reader might expect.
I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of this book. Being unable to solve the puzzle of Gabriel’s death and the part his wife Alicia had in it was unimportant in the light of the enjoyment that Alex Michaelides provided.
This is the author’s debut novel. He read English at Cambridge University and received an MA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. His interest in screenwriting explains the graphic nature of his novel’s plot and the uncanny ability he shows in dribbling bits of information at the right time in his novel. His writing of the film Devil You Know and his part in writing The Con is On is a practical background to have when writing a novel. Thoroughness is another trait in this young writer as instanced in his working part-time at a secure psychiatric facility. It is hands-on experience that is transmitted in the novel in the character of Theo Faber.
I have to agree with everybody else. This is a first class thriller.
By Alex Michaelides