Alicia Berenson writes a diary as a release, an outlet – and to prove to her beloved husband that everything is fine. She can’t bear the thought of worrying Gabriel, or causing him pain.
Until, late one evening, Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never speaks another word.
Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can successfully treat Alicia, where all others have failed. Obsessed with investigating her crime, his discoveries suggest Alicia’s silence goes far deeper than he first thought.
And if she speaks, would he want to hear the truth?
There has been a lot of early buzz about Alex Michaelides’ debut psychological thriller, The Silent Patient and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. It follows the story of Theo Faber, a criminal psychotherapist that has taken up a new post in The Grove, a secure mental facility. He was eager to get the job because it would bring him closer to Alicia Berenson, a famous artist who shot and killed her husband Gabriel six years ago. Theo is fascinated with the case because, since the incident, Alicia has refused to talk and nobody knows her side of the story. She was convicted of her husband’s murder but Theo is intrigued by what really happened that night and why she refuses to talk about it. He is confident that he can make her talk and he makes it his mission to investigate her life and the circumstances leading up to the shooting.
Before the murder, Alicia seemed to have lived the perfect life. She appeared to have the perfect job and marriage but from her diary entries that accompany the main narrative as told by Theo, we find out that her life was far from ideal. As her narrative progresses, we find out that a lot was going on in Alicia’s life in the weeks leading up to the incident and Gabriel’s murder may not be as simplistic as everyone assumed. To make matters more complicated, Alicia was previously diagnosed with depression and had a complicated childhood following the death of her mother so Alicia may indeed have had a psychological break. In addition, we find out that Alicia was indeed highly paranoid so she may have been pushed to kill by an unknown individual.
Following the murder, Alicia painted her most infamous self-portrait, Alcestis, named for the titular character in Euripides’ Greek tragedy. Theo begins to draw parallels between the heroine and Alicia, thus making Alicia into a mythical character. We often wonder if Theo is confusing the real woman who has been convicted of murder with the mythical version of a woman wronged and sentenced to death by her husband. We get the idea that he is perhaps romanticising her situation too much, which leads us to believe that he may be an unreliable narrator.
Theo’s narration is fascinating because he discusses his psychiatric beliefs and his methods for diagnosing and treating patients. Theo reveals his emotional fragility and that he is under a considerable amount of psychological stress having just started a new job. In addition, he has found out that his wife is having an affair and he starts to discover more about the man she is seeing. Due to his choice of profession and these stresses, Theo tells us that he often questions his own sanity. This is a clever tool because it leads us to question the validity of his narrative. His obsession with Alicia becomes unhealthy at points and we question whether there is something else propelling his investigation. He also often discusses the psychological phenomenon of the patient projecting their feelings onto the therapist and vice versa, which conflates both Theo and Alicia, thus again leading us to question his narrative and his feelings. Michaelides seems to go out of his way to make us question Theo’s narrative and it seems to be an exercise in the unreliable narrator. And this is no bad thing. We have become accustomed to questioning the validity of narratives in both fiction and the media and Michaelides plays on the audience’s tendency to do this.
Michaelides has described the book as “a psychological Agatha Christie” and I think this is a fitting description. Because of the book’s psychological focus, it’s a bit slower paced than many other thrillers I’ve read lately. There are often long passages of Theo’s thoughts on psychological theories and his methods for treating patients. Yet, the book is no less compelling because of this. The film rights have already been sold so I look forward to how the book will be translated to the screen as many parts of the book work particularly well in the written word.
About the author
Alex Michaelides was born in Cyprus to a Greek-Cypriot father and English mother. He read English at Cambridge University and received a MA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. He wrote the film Devil You Know, starring Rosamund Pike, and co-wrote The Con is On, starring Uma Thurman and Tim Roth. The Silent Patient is his first novel.