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By February 8, 2021 Read More →

Rapscallion Magazine Book Review: Alex Michaelides’ The Silent Patient and the unreliable narrator – a device that keeps the reader guessing to the end

The Silent Patient centres around Alicia who refuses to speak after her murder conviction

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Review.

We are all unreliable narrators. That amazing holiday we enjoyed, our wonderful wedding and those photos of our perfect lifestyle played out on social media are not the truth but an edited version of what happened. It is part of being human to hide the truth and to spin a version of our lives so as to give everyone the version we want them to believe. And so it is in a novel – we see the world through the protagonist’s eyes only to begin to question their version – and in the case of Alex Michaelides’ The Silent Patient – the truth comes too late as by then we have bought into the narrator’s version.

There are hints of course as Theo Faber in The Silent Patient is quite certain that Alicia Berenson is a murderer, that his motivation to discover the truth of her husband’s death becomes an obsession to the point that he goes against the orders of his employers at The Grove. Written in the first person The Silent Patient is a whodunnit psychological thriller in which the truth is only revealed in the final pages in the spirit of Agatha Christie’s masterpiece The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Theo Faber is fascinated by the murder of Alicia Berenson’s husband and decides to take a job at the hospital where she has been confined after being sentenced following her trial and conviction for the murder of her husband. She hasn’t spoken a word since the suspected murder and he is determined to find the truth and make her speak. The ingenious plot construction ensures the reader is given a series of false clues as the narrator deliberately disguises his version of the story in the best traditions of the unreliable narrator. And yet the finale is there from the beginning in a play Alicia had seen shortly before her husband’s death, the Greek tragedy Alcestis. Just to make sure we don’t miss the clue Alicia leaves the play’s title on the canvas of her last painting. Of course, the skill of the novelist manipulates the reader in ignoring this ‘in plain sight’ riddle.

Alex Michaelides uses a number of devices to keep us guessing. If we have inklings about Theo’s story then we also get an alternative view of events through Alicia’s diary. Is she also being entirely honest? As Theo investigates her family we get a series of possibilities about what may have happened and there is the sub plot of his relationship with his wife. All neatly sown together to give a suspenseful and page-turning thriller. I for one had to read it to the end one night as in the best traditions of whonunnits I had to find out what happened – which for me proves the quality of the book. Yes you can pick holes in the plot afterwards and question motives and realities but by then the job of the writer is done.

The Remains of the Day was also made into a film

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, the butler Stevens relates the story of his service to the fascist sympathising aristocrat Lord Darlington and his suppressed affection for the housekeeper Miss Kenton. He denies his own feelings for her and of how his devotion to duty of his employer has affectively compromised much of his life. It’s a feeling many feel in the autumn years of their lives as they realise they have not lived a full life and have related their experiences as unreliable narrators as they didn’t want to reveal their true thoughts.

Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending follows the obsessive Tony Webster who is keen to extract vengeance on a slight by a friend which eventually reveals the pettiness of the narrator. His version is about his quest to find out what happened to the woman he once wanted to love in a mission that had a twist in the end, after his vindictiveness is revealed despite the way he slanted the story.

The Lat King of Scotland was made into a film

The Last King of Scotland’s narrator Nicholas Garrigan in Giles Foden’s novel in which the protagonist Giles (a doctor) works for the Ugandan dictator General Amin but is oblivious to the brutality of the regime as he portrays his life in the nightmare of the East African nation which is at odds with the realities. It’s this very denial and misrepresentation that so grips the reader in this case as we know the truth.

In Garrigan’s novel we are gripped because we know his protagonist is mistaken, while in Ishiguro’s story of Stevens we are not so sure about his thoughts until he slowly reveals how institutionalised he has become. As for Theo, well he is the most plausible of narrators because he is a professional criminal psychotherapist who we feel we can trust, while Alicia is clearly an unhinged artist. But that’s the trick – to give the reader enough clues to place doubts in the mind and take us on a journey where the final destination is only revealed at the end.

Harry Mottram

For details for the work of the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk

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Or email him at harryfmottram@gmail.com

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