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Book Review: The Silent Patient

The power of silence shines through this gripping novel.
Last Updated : 28 September 2019, 19:30 IST
Last Updated : 28 September 2019, 19:30 IST

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Chilling. Intriguing. Shocking. These are the words that came to my mind, in the very same order, after reading The Silent Patient. It’s hard to believe that this is Alex Michaelides’s debut crime novel. Outstanding, to say the least, this high-octane offering had my jaw hitting the ground. No exaggeration. And, you have to read it, to believe it…

This is the story of Alicia Berenson who has everything in life — an envious career as an artist, a perfect husband who is a celebrated fashion photographer, and a beautiful house overlooking a park in an expensive area of London. Yet, one evening, when her husband Gabriel returns home from work, she shoots him to death, five times in the face, and goes silent. So silent that she doesn’t utter a word thereon. Even during the trials in court. No justification, no explanation, no argument. The case attracts a lot of attention. “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.”

She’s whisked away from media glare and lodged in The Grove, a high-security criminal psychiatric facility in North London. She becomes ‘The Silent Patient’.

In comes forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber, who is determined to break through her silence, and treat her against all odds. There’s opposition from various quarters. But Theo braves them all, because “only she knows what happened” and “only I can make her speak”. Thus begins the suspenseful saga where the reader is held, almost hypnotically, in the grip of the story as it traverses the minds of both — the woman convicted of murdering her husband, and the therapist who’s determined to treat her. Yes, it is not a story that traces the journey of its protagonists from Point A to Point B, frame by frame.

Rather, it is a story that dissects the protagonists’ psyche, drawing the reader deep into the mystery surrounding Alicia, The Silent Patient, and the many secrets that mark the personal life of Theo. In the process, we get to know Theo better — his life outside The Grove, his actor wife Kathy, and the motivation behind treating Alicia to help her find her voice again.

A number of other characters come and go, like Professor Diomedes, the head of The Grove; Stephanie Clarke, manager of The Grove; Christian, a psychiatrist at The Grove; Paul, Alicia’s cousin; Jean-Felix Martin, who manages the small gallery that represents Alicia; Max, Gabriel’s brother, and so on. However, they are like mere puppets that have no major role to play. They just make an appearance when the need arises, play their tiny parts, and allow the story to unfold by itself. After all, The Silent Patient is all about peeling back, layer by layer, the cloak of mystery surrounding Alicia, understanding why she killed her husband who she loved dearly — “Gabriel is my whole world — and has been since the day we met. I’ll love him no matter what he does, or what happens — no matter how much he upsets me — no matter how untidy or messy he is — how thoughtless, how selfish. I’ll take him just as he is. Until death do us part.”

And then there’s this painting titled ALCESTIS, which she paints when she is under house arrest before the trial. Had Alicia named her self-portrait after Alcestis, the heroine of a Greek myth who had willingly sacrificed her life for her husband Admetus? Was Alicia trying to convey a message through this self-portrait? Theo wants to find out.

As we thumb through the pages, the book becomes unputdownable, almost addictive. Silence is a powerful weapon, we realise, and join Theo in his attempts at understanding Alicia better by digging up the darkest secrets from her past — her not-so-happy childhood, her abusive father, her mean aunt, and so on.

After all, she is a blank canvas now, owing to her silence, forcing us, readers, to draw our own conclusions about her from the journal she keeps, and what the other characters in the book say about her. Till the end… when she actually opens up… or, does she? Well, it’s for you to find out. And when you do, you will find yourself shaken. There are no twists and turns, and dramatic revelations, till the last few pages. There lies Alex Michaelides’s genius. An intelligent plot coupled with an interesting character study, and finally the impactful punch that leaves you flabbergasted, totally.

A scriptwriter whose movies include The Devil You Know and The Brits Are Coming, Alex Michaelides’s very first outing as a novelist has left me waiting for his next title, already.

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Published 28 September 2019, 19:30 IST

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