Published by Orion
If you, like I, have been trawling through essential reading lists for Summer Holidays 2019 you have probably come across this on at least one of them. I read it prior to my Summer Holidays 2019 and probably should have waited until I was poolside, with the rays beating down on my sunscreened head and with a cocktail in hand, to have appreciated it for what it is – a fairly brainless thriller-with-a-twist, dressed up in psycho babble in order to entice a more discerning holiday reader.
It’s had endorsements from Stephen Fry amongst others, and it’s been marketed as a must read in the vein of The Girl Before and My Lovely Wife, and other books with large, distorted font designed to tell the browser in the bookstore that this will be a smart psychological thriller with maybe a little bit of edgy romance thrown in. And it is that, to be fair, but it has fallen victim to the one-upmanship game, with the narrative clearly coming well after thinking up the nuts and bolts of the plot, which would be fine, and is surely the process of many authors, if it wasn’t so transparent.
The patient who is silent is an artist called Alicia Berenson. She has been committed to a privately run psychiatric facility following her conviction for the murder of her husband, a celebrated fashion photographer. She has been selectively mute ever since she was found by police standing near the fresh corpse of her spouse, and the cut and dry case means she has been locked away for the past seven years. Through diary entries we view the days leading up to the death, and can detect an unravelling that may indicate the motive for the killing.
Enter Theo Faber, a psychotherapist fascinated by the case, and positive he can get the woman to talk. Her high profile artwork, painted in a frenzy while on bail before the trial, drew huge crowds including Theo to the gallery in which it was hung, stark as it was in its macabre conception and intriguing as it was in its subject. A self portrait, the artist named it Alcestis, after the wife in an ancient Greek myth who offers to die in the place of her husband.
The novel starts off well, and it becomes clear that there will be two voices telling the story quickly, that of Alicia through her diary entries and of Theo as he begins his therapy with her and faces his own personal problems. Although it seems at first that his interest in Alicia borders on the romantic we soon discover that he is married to an American actress and that their dynamic is intense but fraught. The parallel of two marriages breaking down is interesting, and Theo’s investigation into Alicia’s backstory is paced well, the addition of the clues left by Alicia in her painting is also almost enough to redeem the presence of the red herrings that are left here, there and everywhere. But the convoluted psychological breadcrumbs being fed as plot devices are a step too far, and the ultimate unveiling is a disappointment.
The author is the writer of two successful screenplays, and this is his first novel. It’s a pity this wasn’t written for the screen as it would work much better plot wise as a mini-series; the conclusion in that medium and context would be a huge, really effective surprise rather than the let-down it is here. The feeling of being cuckolded leaves a sting; being brought round and round on a merry-go-round ride with nothing juicy or even satisfying to show for it is quite annoying. Perhaps I had too much hope for it, hyped as it has been, but instead of mulling it over once finished like I often do I started my next book straight away, in the hopes of obtaining some sort of literary nutrition I lost while tending to this inconsequential empty-calorie snack of a novel.
The internet has told me that production rights to the story have in fact been sold, so if I were you I’d stand by for the movie or TV adaptation, which you (and I) will surely enjoy! Avoid otherwise, unless you have a mojito in hand and not a care in the world, least of all where the ending of this story takes you.
First published in The Tuam Herald on 24.07.19