Thursday 18 April 2019

The Silent Patient: High-octane debut lives up to its hype

Crime: The Silent Patient

Alex Michaelides

Orion, €15.99

Alex Michaelides will have you gripped from the very first page
Alex Michaelides will have you gripped from the very first page

Claire Coughlan

It's rare that a debut novel comes weighted with this much hype.

However, the figures speak for themselves: The Silent Patient has been sold in 38 territories and Brad Pitt's Plan B Productions has bought the film rights.

The book is already a New York Times bestseller, a couple of weeks after publication, which follows a seven-month long intensive marketing and publicity campaign by the publisher.

This level of promotion is only ever seen by a handful of lead titles per year… which leads to the burning question: can the hype be justified?

And yes, with The Silent Patient, it's my opinion that it certainly can. In an over-crowded market, the psychological thriller really needs to deliver with a flash and a bang if it's to distinguish itself from the many other novels promising 'a twist you won't see coming'.

The danger with being forewarned about an amazing twist is that you can spend the whole book trying to figure out what it is, compromising your enjoyment of the novel, but this one crept up and floored me.

This is a debut that feels like the work of a very accomplished writer. The plot, characters and style are vivid enough to warrant devouring it in a day, immersed in the world of Alicia and Theo.

Alicia Berenson, a successful artist, writes in her diary as an outlet to prove to her beloved husband Gabriel, a photographer, that everything is fine (though it's plain that it's anything but - for reasons that won't become clear until later).

She can't bear the thought of causing him a moment's worry, or pain. Until one evening, she shoots him five times and then never speaks another word.

Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is charged with attempting to break Alicia's silence at The Grove, a high-security criminal psychiatric facility in London.

The writing is scalpel-sharp and uncluttered, the style spare and concise, uncrowded with extraneous detail. The author Alex Michaelides is also a screenwriter, who wrote the film The Devil You Know, starring Rosamund Pike, as well as The Brits are Coming, starring Uma Thurman, Tim Roth and Stephen Fry, who has given a quote for the cover.

It's by no means a leap of imagination to see how this would work on screen. From the clinical, slightly unorthodox workings of The Grove, to Alicia's upmarket, though unsettled previous existence in Hampstead, the setting is evocatively evoked, as Theo goes from person to person from Alicia's past life in a bid to find out exactly what happened to cause her psyche to disintegrate in such a spectacular fashion.

Theo's obsession with Alicia is ultimately convincing and the quest to uncover the motivation behind her crime becomes all-consuming, with an unrelenting pace.

The author gradually ratchets up the tension notch by notch, until all is revealed in a very satisfying ending. The well-worn cliche of the big twist was genuinely surprising in this instance.

The unease and confusion depicted in Alicia's sections is effectively, if sparely, drawn, while Theo's voice is in contrast, authoritatively compelling and confident, interspersed with plenty of interesting references to psychology and psychoanalysis in his treatment of himself and his patients.

In The Silent Patient, Michaelides has managed to deliver a high-octane, thought-provoking read reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith, but with its own completely fresh take on the psychological thriller.

Watch out for this on beach towels and deck chairs this summer; I'm sure it will be everywhere.

Highly recommended.

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