The Silent Patient (Orion, February)
When Alex Michaelides was growing up in Cyprus, there were long, hot summers which he and his sister would spend at the beach. The summer he turned 13, he borrowed his sister’s collection of Agatha Christie novels and read one every couple of days. “They were the first adult books I read, the first time that I’d ever disappeared into someone else’s world. Christie made me a reader and a writer.”
Almost three decades later, Michaelides, 41, has written a debut novel with a narrative to rival that of his boyhood literary heroine. The Silent Patient is a taut, meticulously plotted and compelling novel that has earned advance praise from the likes of Lee Child, Stephen Fry and David Baldacci. It was the subject of a seven-way publisher auction and has so far sold in 40 foreign territories, a record for a UK debut thriller.
The Silent Patient is narrated by Theo Faber, a psychotherapist determined to discover why Alicia Berenson, a famous artist accused of murdering her husband, has refused to speak since her husband’s death. The therapeutic setting was inspired by Michaelides’s own experience. “Therapy is very important to me and has been a major part of my life,” he says. “I was in individual therapy twice a week for about 10 years and then I was in group therapy for quite a while. I put a lot of myself into the book.”
Running through the novel is the Greek myth of Alcestis, and Euripides’s play of the same name. Michaelides says he has been “haunted” by the play since reading it at school as a teenager: “It’s something about feeling unlovable and unworthy that I related to. And a sense of being damaged, I guess. At that point in my life I felt quite damaged.”
The Alcestis theme is perhaps one of the reasons that The Silent Patient is finding such traction both among early readers and the tranche of movie executives who fought to option it. With its story of female sacrifice and the silencing of a woman post-trauma, it feels highly relevant in a post #MeToo world. “It’s about silence as a weapon,” Michaelides says. “And it was very clear in my head when I was writing the book that Alicia was surrounded by these men who were imprisoning her.”
The novel has already been optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, with Michaelides due to write the screenplay, a fitting circularity for a novelist who has spent the past 15 years working as a screenwriter.
After an English degree at Cambridge University, he took a screenwriting course at the American Film Institute and embarked on a career in a film industry he found “soul destroying”. He was on the brink of giving up writing when he decided to have one last throw of the dice: “I thought, ‘Before I give up writing, I’m going to try and write the one thing I always wanted to write’, which was an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery with a deeper psychological complexity.”
Novel writing, he discovered, was his natural medium: “Being able to move into someone’s head – it’s totally liberated me. In a film, you have to keep moving. In a book, you can go down rabbit holes, go into internal monologues.”
In spite of the hype surrounding the novel, Michaelides is circumspect about his prepublication success: “Even now I’m so happy when someone says they like it.” It is a novel, he says, that asks the question: can you get over your childhood?
And what’s the answer? “That if you hold yourself in awareness, then you can. Otherwise you’re destined to re-enact it.”