Alex Michaelides

The Observer - The New Review - - Books - Han­nah Beck­er­man

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.