Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 16)

18 Award-Winning Non-Fiction Books

When you spend as much time on #Bookstagram as I do, you’ll see a lot of non-fiction slander. I think too many readers have been traumatised by rubbish self-help and dense textbooks for school to appreciate the mastery of a true story well-told. Far be it for me to tell anyone what to read, but if you ever find yourself wanting to give non-fiction another go, here are eighteen award-winning non-fiction books that will grip you just as tightly as the best-written mystery or romance.

18 Award Winning Nonfiction Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
You’ll be an award-worthy reader if you make a purchase through one of the affiliate links on this page to support my site!

Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Zadie Smith - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Zadie Smith really can do it all: fiction, non-fiction, whatever takes her fancy. Feel Free is her “thoroughly resplendent” essay collection, which won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. In five sections (“In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf and “Feel Free”), she explores the concept of freedom as it applies to language and thought and how we experience the world. Smith was praised for the range, with vignettes, profiles, and reviews on subjects as varied as Jay-Z and J.G. Ballard. In her acceptance speech, Smith extended her thanks to her husband, Nick Laird, and apologised for stealing the title for her collection from one of his poetry books.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

The Princess Diarist - Carrie Fisher - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Princess Diarist is one of the most bitter-sweet award-winning non-fiction books. Carrie Fisher bared all in her account of filming the first Star Wars film, exposing a long-suspected affair she had with her married co-star Harrison Ford, going so far as to include love letters she wrote to him as a wonder-struck 19-year-old. It was the last book Fisher published before her death in 2016. The following year, she was awarded a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for her narration of the audiobook, beating out fellow nominees Bruce Springsteen, Bernie Sanders, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Read my full review of The Princess Diarist here.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If there’s any non-fiction book that’s worthy of winning all the awards, it’s The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. Rebecca Skloot explores the hidden contributions of a woman whose name the world barely knew, contributions that made most of modern medicine possible. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot! For her efforts, Skloot was awarded the National Academies Communication Award (for best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine), the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, the Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction, a Salon Book Award, and the book was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Joan Didion

Anyone who’s lost anyone unexpectedly and turned to literature has undoubtedly encountered The Year Of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion’s memoir (and, later, play) describing her experience of the loss of her husband became an instant classic account of mourning and grief. The New York Times Book Review described it as “exhilarating”, with Didion’s journey through grief making a kind of adventure story for the reader, traversing the terrain of her emotional life. Didion was then awarded the 2005 National Book Award For Non-Fiction, with judges calling it “a masterpiece in two genres” (memoir and journalism) and “a stunning book of electric honesty and passion”.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

See What You Made Me Do - Jess Hill - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Anyone who’s ever heard about a domestic abuse situation and wondered “why didn’t she leave?” needs to read Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do. It’s a deeply disturbing and incredibly illuminating exploration into the causes of domestic abuse, and our collective role in preventing and mitigating the harm it causes. Hill was already an award-winning journalist prior to its release (having taken home Our Watch awards, Walkley Awards, and Amnesty International Australian Media awards for her reporting on domestic violence and the Family Court), but I’d imagine the 2020 Stella Prize for this brilliant book takes pride of place on the trophy shelf.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air - Paul Kalanithi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When Breath Becomes Air is every bit as devastating as the most well-written tragedy, and there isn’t even hope for a fictional happily-ever-after. Shortly after finding his footing in the medical profession, neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. This terminal diagnosis, and the transition from doctor to patient, is the subject of his memoir. It’s a meditation on mortality that resonated with readers, as demonstrated by the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for Memoir & Autobiography.

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara

I'll Be Gone In The Dark - Michelle McNamara - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Michelle McNamara was one of the original true-crime obsessives, detailing her private investigation into the Golden State Killer (a moniker she actually coined) on her blog TrueCrimeDiary. She was about two-thirds of the way into adapting her blog posts into a book when she sadly died unexpectedly in 2016. It took two years for her colleagues and husband to finish her work, and the book was published in its final form, as I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, in 2018. Just two months later, the Golden State Killer was caught. It’s a story as wild as the book itself, one that captured enough public attention to win the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for Non-Fiction. Read my full review of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark here.

A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is an ambitious non-fiction book, to say the least. Bill Bryson attempts to provide an overview of the entire history of the whole world, from the Big Bang to biology to subatomic particles. It’s a tough call, especially when you factor in that Bryson – by his own admission – knew very little about science when he began, and he wanted to write a book that was accessible to the every-person, without too much scientific jargon. That it went on to become an award-winning non-fiction book is nothing short of extraordinary: the EU Descartes Prize for science communication, and The Aventis Prize for Best General Science Book. (Bonus points: Bryson donated the prize money to a children’s hospital.) Read my full review of A Short History Of Nearly Everything here.

Tracker by Alexis Wright

Tracker - Alexis Wright - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders. For her work, she was awarded the Stella Prize in 2018. Read my full review of Tracker here.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

The Five - Hallie Rubenhold - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Non-fiction books win awards when they shine a light on aspects of culture and history that make us think about our world in a different way. Well, that’s the case with The Five, anyway. It’s a book about challenging long-held assumptions, specifically about the victims of Jack the Ripper. The serial killer’s name is known the world over, but the names of his victims (Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane, for the record) not so much. They’re often reduced to markers in a crime scene, misremembered as sex workers and addicts, when in fact their lives were real and whole and complex. It’s an essential contribution to the historical record and the genre of true crime, for which Rubenhold won the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize valued at £50,000. Read my full review of The Five here.

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

Eggshell Skull - Bri Lee - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bri Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is perhaps the main reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths. Despite overwhelming internal and external obstacles, Lee shows extraordinary bravery in describing her experiences working as a judge’s associate, and how it led her to report and prosecute her own abuser. Read my full review of Eggshell Skull here.

Murder In Mississippi by John Safran

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins

John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. In Murder In Mississippi (alternative title God’ll Cut You Down), he jets off to the U.S. to investigate the murder of a white supremacist by a Black man. He thinks he’ll EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort comes to pass. It becomes a book about writing a true crime book, more than a book about the crime itself – but Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award for True Crime, nonetheless. Read my full review of Murder In Mississippi here.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming - Michelle Obama - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated, which makes it all the more surprising that Becoming went on to become an award-winning best-seller. Michelle Obama describes her life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her courtship with and marriage to Barack, and her time as First Lady living at the world’s most famous address. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the content or format, and yet it captured the public’s attention in a way that not many political memoirs seem to do. The book won the NCAAP Image Award for Biography/Autobiography, and the audiobook, narrated by the author herself, won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album. Read my full review of Becoming here.

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated - Tara Westover - Keeping Up With The Penguins

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated – a memoir about shame, understanding, and the transformative power of education – would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling. She won a list of awards and accolades as long as your arm, among them: the ALA’s Alex Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and the Goodreads Choice Award for Autobiogaphy. Read my full review of Educated here.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

Know My Name - Chanel Miller - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The world knew Chanel Miller’s story long before we knew her name – which is why she chose to reclaim it in her memoir, titled (of course) Know My Name. As “Jane Doe”, Miller made headlines for her incisive and moving victim impact statement, describing the after-effects of a disgusting sexual assault perpetrated by “promising young man” Brock Turner. By coming forward and identifying herself, Miller has connected her name to her attacker’s in perpetuity, but she has also won the Ridenhour Book Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Non-Fiction, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. Read my full review of Know My Name here.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Not all award-winning non-fiction books are doom and gloom! Me Talk Pretty One Day will have you howling with laughter, in the hands of master storyteller and humourist David Sedaris. In this essay collection, he aligns and contrasts his childhood growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina with his fumbling attempts to integrate as an adult living the ex-pat life in Normandy, France. Making one’s own linguistic shortcomings the butt of the joke doesn’t sting so much, we can assume, when you take home the Lambda Literary Award For Humor, the Puddly Award for Humor, and the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Read my full review of Me Talk Pretty One Day here.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild - Cheryl Strayed - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Cheryl Strayed discovered, after the publication of her memoir Wild, that rags-to-riches stories don’t play out as quickly as you might think. She was $85,000 in debt when she sold the book, and the advance she received was barely enough to stay afloat. Even when the awards came rolling in – the Goodreads Choice Award for Memoir & Autobiography, the Readers Choice Award at the Oregon Book Awards, and the Puddly Award For Non-Fiction – she still had some financial demons to wrangle. Luckily, she has huge reserves of fortitude and inner strength, as evidenced by her 1,100 hike along the Pacific Crest Trail described in the book in question. Read my full review of Wild here.

Empire Of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Empire Of Pain - Patrick Radden Keefe - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You might not know the Sacklers (unless you spend a lot of time in the museums they’ve paid a lot of money to adorn with the family name), but you definitely know their product: OxyContin, the opioid that triggered an epidemic of abuse. Or, maybe you’ve read Empire Of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s award-winning non-fiction book about their exploitation of loopholes in pharmaceutical regulation and their central role in the American opioid epidemic. He, quite rightly, won massive acclaim for his investigative journalism, including the Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction and the Goodreads Choice Award for History & Biography. Read my full review of Empire Of Pain here.

Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Reservoir 13 begins like any dime-a-dozen missing-girl mystery novel. A teenage girl on holiday with her family in England goes missing. The whole town turns out to look for her, and the news dominates the headlines… for a while. No trace of her is ever found. Do you think you know what happens next?

Reservoir 13 - Jon McGregor - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get Reservoir 13 here.
(When you make a purchase through an affiliate link like this one, you’re supporting this site with a small commission at no cost to you!)

Does a hard-boiled heavy-drinking detective take it on as one last case? Does a plucky local teen become obsessed with the story and start a podcast? Does a family member or friend take justice into their own hands and set out on a vigilante mission? Nope! McGregor is up to his old tricks in Reservoir 13, turning your expectations on their heads.

You’ll learn next to nothing about the missing 13-year-old, or her family, or the detectives investigating her case. They all remain unnamed peripheral figures, going about their business in the background of the plot. Instead, this is the story of the town, a community disturbed by a tragedy in its midst but carrying on in its wake.

The narrative perspective is very removed. You experience Reservoir 13 as the town, rather than as any specific character within it. The story moves quickly, too – six months passes in the first twenty pages, a year in each chapter. It stretches out thirteen years, a neat little allusion to the age of the missing girl that sparks it all. People move to town, people move away, people get married and die, kids are born, businesses open and close – it’s all captured in McGregor’s tale.

McGregor’s writing style is a bit unusual, and quite ambitious (you can tell because he never uses punctuation marks for dialogue, ugh), but it still reads smoothly. I had to double back once or twice, to keep pace with the changes in direction and focus, but it’s surprisingly well done on the whole.

The tone and vibe of Reservoir 13 land somewhere between Max Porter and Evie Wyld. There are strong echoes of traditional pastoral novels, with lots of descriptions of local flora and fauna, the changing of the seasons and the impact of the weather. It’s quiet and intimate, but there’s a lot of water running deep in this still river.

In case I haven’t made it clear, I’ll state it plainly for the record: there are infuriatingly few clues about the girl’s fate, all the way to the end of Reservoir 13. Spoiler warning, or whatever, but I don’t think it’s a shock to say that he gives us no answers, not a one. The father is arrested for arson about a decade after his daughter’s disappearance, and the school caretaker is prosecuted for possession of child pornography in an apparently unrelated case, but there is no firm resolution for what’s ostensibly the central mystery of the book. Of course, that’s the Point(TM), but it’s still annoying if you’re a completionist type who hates ambiguity.

All told, Reservoir 13 is a quiet, creeping bummer of a book. It’s a well written one, masterful in fact, but a quiet, creeping bummer nonetheless. Another reviewer called it ” a chilling meditation on time, and loss through change”, if that gives you a better idea of what you’re in for, but either way your heart probably won’t be warmed by this one. We all die alone, or we disappear without anyone ever figuring out why, and you should probably have a bottle of wine ready for when McGregor finishes explaining those depressing truths to you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Reservoir 13:

  • “Joyce pranked us all with Ulysses and now McGregor is playing the same game, banking on the critics’ gullibility. Frankly there are better ways to pass your time…” – Thomas M. Elder
  • “This may be the most boring book in the universe. I stuck it out until the end and it wasn’t worth it. “Lyrical,” no it’s slow and overly liberal with descriptions of the environment. I disliked this book so much i was motivated to write negative reviews on multiple websites.” – Jeff
  • “More characters than the bible – less interesting than Countryfile – who on Earth wants to read that “it looked like rain”, “John raised his hat to Jane” and “a Blackbird rooted about in the leaves under a hedge”?” – Sony Victim
  • “Words fail me… as they so obviously did in the writing of this awful novel.” – Jeff

The Old Man And The Sea – Ernest Hemingway

I didn’t love The Sun Also Rises, so you’d be forgiven for thinking I was done with Hemingway. But I couldn’t resist inheriting my grandparents’ copy of The Old Man And The Sea, a beauty published by Jonathan Cape in 1962. It’s a little worse for wear, but still perfectly readable.

The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Old Man And The Sea here.
(I’ll be grateful until I’m old and out to sea myself if you make a purchase through an affiliate link that supports this page.)

Ernest Hemingway wrote this novella between December 1950 and February 1951, and it was first published in 1952. It was his last major fictional work to be published before his death. It’s hard to separate the content and themes of The Old Man And The Sea from Hemingway’s own life and state of mind at the time. His previous novel had been savaged in reviews, his wife wasn’t speaking to him (because he’d fallen in love with his “muse”) and he was drinking his life away in Cuba. Feeling old and dejected and cursed, but holding onto hope for a silver bullet solution, pretty much sums it up – both Hemingway and his book.

The blurb for The Old Man And The Sea sums it up well: it’s “the story of a young boy, an old man, and a giant fish”. That’s literally it. A young boy helps care for an old fisherman who hasn’t brought in any catch lately; then the old man goes out on his own and catches a huge marlin, so big he can’t haul it in himself and it tows him out to sea.

It took longer to read than I thought. Even though it’s short and an ostensibly simple story (old man + big fish = trouble), The Old Man And The Sea is surprisingly emotive and weighty. It’s a tragic one-two punch: the pitiable old man puts in such an effort (literally, his life on the line) to haul in this great fish only to have it snatched out of his grasp, and the quiet dignity with which he suffers and perseveres.

Ultimately, it’s quite a bummer – especially when you read it knowing a little about Hemingway’s personal life at the time of writing.

Hemingway sure went out on a high, though. The Old Man And The Sea earned him his first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953, and it was the only of his works specifically cited when he was awarded the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1954. The judges praised his “powerful, style-making mastery of the art of modern narration” (which seems to me to be a very fancy way of saying “he write good”).

And, the highest praise of all: *I* liked it, far better than anything else of his I’ve read. The Old Man And The Sea is definitely the one to pick up if you’re not sure you’ll vibe with Hemingway and his whole schtick. There’s a lot less explicit misogyny and ethnocentrism in this one (it’s still there, but not quite so in-your-face), and it’s definitely Papa at his most emotionally intelligent and sensitive.

Read The Old Man And The Sea on audiobook via here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Old Man And The Sea:

  • “I don’t care about fishing and I don’t see the point of the story.” – Samira P.
  • “If I could give this book zero stars, I would. This is a poorly written “classic” that doesn’t deserve the time to be read. If you don’t want to take my advice, then have fun reading about an old guy who is very angry at a fish.” – laura harshbarger
  • “The Old Man and the Sea reads as if it were written by a demented philosopher with the vocabulary of the current American President, trying fruitlessly to convey some idiot zen life lesson… If you like dull old men in boats writing about dull old men in boats alone, this is the book for you. Or, for those curious as to what alcoholism does to the mind, read The Sun Also Rises and this book back to back.” – Dr Moreau

We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Even though We Need To Talk About Kevin is fictional, its stark portrayal of a woman reeling after her son’s violent killing spree at his high-school has become a kind of cultural shorthand since its initial publication in 2003. I’d say that reading it is “timely”, but sadly, with the state of gun laws in the U.S., it’s never not.

We Need To Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get We Need To Talk About Kevin here.
(We need to talk about affiliate links: when you make a purchase, you’ll be supporting this page by sending a small commission this way.)

In We Need To Talk About Kevin, a regretful mother resents her own child, and fears him despite his father’s insistence that he’s a “normal” boy. After he kills several of his classmates and staff at his school, she writes to her absent husband about what happened and where it all went wrong with Kevin.

None of this constitutes a “spoiler”, by the way – it’s all in the blurb.

The first letter is dated 8 November 2000, one year and eight months after the massacre (that the narrator, Eva, calls Thursday, lacking any better nomenclature). She tells the story of Kevin’s upbringing in roughly chronological order, with occasional shifts in timeline to better emphasise a given point. She was reluctant to step back from her flourishing career to birth and raise Kevin, and suspected from the start that something was “off” about her son. Her husband, Franklin, denied anything amiss, however, and insisted that the problems were all Eva’s, stemming from her own ambivalence about motherhood.

Shriver up-ends the ever-popular “Oh, I just couldn’t believe it, he’s the last one you’d expect would do something like this!” narrative. Kevin is never a sympathetic character, not even as an infant. Neither is his mother, come to that. It’s no surprise at all to the reader that he would do something terrible. Though Eva didn’t foresee his homicidal attack on his school, she can see in retrospect that it was entirely predictable. The “signs” were all there. But could she have done anything to prevent it?

And there we have the question at the heart of We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Eva’s letters to Franklin. Were Kevin’s actions inevitable? Was he “born this way”? How much of his murderous rage was innate, and how much was fostered by Eva’s parenting? It’s nature versus nurture, with the highest stakes.

It makes We Need To Talk About Kevin a truly chilling read. Not horror-movie jump-scare scary, but can’t-look-away feel-it-in-your-bones unnerving. I found myself totally gripped by it, even though the ending was a foregone conclusion. I “just-one-more-chapter”ed myself past bed-time more than once.

That speaks to Shriver’s unquestionable talent and mastery of the form. To have a story play out exactly as you’d expect, and yet still keep you on the edge of your seat? Incredible. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a very weighty and cerebral book, and yet it’s still highly readable, compelling to the very last.

The only parts that really jarred for me were some casual slurs and ugly points of view that I couldn’t be 100% sure were attributable only to Eva’s character. I really got the impression that Shriver’s own fatphobia and ableism seeped into the narrative without her realising, rather than her inserting it as a character trait to be read critically. This suspicion was backed up when, in the additional material in my edition of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Shriver referred to one of her earlier less-popular novels as her “r***rd child”. Yuck. Shriver has expressed some problematic views in the past, so just be wary and read with a weather eye.

But back to the book: there are no neat answers in this story, not even when the denouement is over and Eva finally demands an explanation from Kevin. The ambiguity of the novel, coupled with the high-stakes subject matter, makes We Need To Talk About Kevin perfect for book club debates – with trigger warnings, naturally.

Oh, speaking of which: heads up for a truly sickening description of a horribly cruel and violent dog death, not quite halfway through. I had to put the book down and play with happy, healthy Fyodor Dogstoyevsky for a while to clear it from my mind.

I can only hope it’s been excluded from the film adaptation, which I’m eager to watch. Having read We Need To Talk About Kevin, I can see that Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller were perfectly cast in their roles as Eva and Kevin respectively. It’s a story that doesn’t lose anything from already knowing how it ends, and can only be enriched by compelling performances on screen, I suspect.

And – I’ve left this point until the very last paragraph, because I suppose it could be a kind of “spoiler”, so turn away now if you want – I need a moment to boast. As soon as Kevin’s little sister, Celia, was introduced, I had a sneaking suspicion that she and Franklin were dead at the time of Eva writing these letters. I totally called it! That almost never happens, so I’m very proud. Time to reward myself with another book!

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Need To Talk About Kevin:

  • “Save your money and your time:
    1. Kevin is bad.
    2. It’s his parents’ fault.” – trav86
  • “She writes a good sentence, but only a masochist would read the whole thing.” – A reader in Berkeley
  • “The mother is a narcissistic, immature, spoiled, cold, unmaternal, whiny, completely unlikable hag. No wonder her child is a psychopath.” – Am
  • “I was excited to read this after seeing all the reviews about how well written it is. Apparently well written just means the author owns a thesaurus.” – Pamela

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

If you’re not intrigued by The Silent Patient, I don’t know how to help you. You’re certainly the exception rather than the rule. It debuted in 2019 at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, and went on to win the Goodreads Choice Award (Mystery & Thriller). Even now, years later, it remains a #BookTok darling and I still see it all over #Bookstagram. So, naturally, my curiosity was piqued.

The Silent Patient - Alex Michaelides - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Get The Silent Patient here.
(No need to remain silent about affiliate links: there’s a few on this page, and I’ll just earn a teeny-tiny commission if you make a purchase.)

Michaelides has said he rewrote the draft of The Silent Patient about fifty times before locking it in. I suppose he was trying to mix the strange bedfellows of his influences in just the right measure. He drew from the Athenian tragedy Alecstis for the plot, and Agatha Christie novels for its structure and tone. That should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

The story begins with a forensic psychotherapist, Theo, drawn to the case of a woman at a psychiatric facility called The Grove. She has not spoken in over six years. Theo finagles his way into a job there, convinced that he’s the only one who can reach her and find the real reason for her protracted silence.

The crime? Well, it’s a doozy. One day, Alicia shot her husband Gabriel repeatedly in the face, and then cut her own wrists. There was no financial motive for the crime, and no apparent conflict in the marriage. She hasn’t said a word to anyone in the years since, not even in her own defense. The judge sent her to the asylum instead of jail, on the grounds of diminished capacity (that’s “insanity”, to our Law & Order watchers), but her elective silence has endured even the staff’s best efforts and powerful psychotropic medications.

So, you’re curious, right? I sure am! I dove headfirst into The Silent Patient, desperate to find out why Alicia wouldn’t speak. It’s easy and interesting reading, and reminds me very much of Don’t Say A Word (one of the few psychological thriller films I’ve seen more than once). I think Michaelides’s background as a screenwriter shines through; he knows just how to set up a story to hook the audience, and pace it out to keep them there. It turns out he also spent a bit of time working at a secure psychiatric facility for teenagers when he was a student, which gives the setting a ring of authenticity.

As The Silent Patient progresses, you realise that both Theo and Alicia have been victimised by a nameless, faceless man in their lives. For Alicia, it was her stalker. For Theo, it was his wife’s lover. As the man gets closer to each of them (which feels like it’s happening in real time, with extracts from Alicia’s diary punctuating Theo’s timeline), the tension rises to almost unbearable heights. Is it just therapeutic countertransference between Alicia and Theo? Or are they actually connected?

If you plan on reading The Silent Patient for yourself, this is where you’re going to want to stop. If you’re just here to get some answers or you don’t give a shit about spoilers, work away.

Alicia finally does speak, around page 270 (in my edition). The Big Shock Twist(TM) comes about 30 pages after that. It turns out, Theo hasn’t been completely clear with the reader about the timeline of events. He’s led us to believe that his wife’s affair has been concurrent with his treatment of Alicia, but actually it happened six years prior – yep, in the lead-up to Alicia murdering her husband. Alicia’s husband was the one sticking it to Theo’s wife, and Theo was the one “stalking” her, figuring out how to insert himself into her life and reveal to her the truth of her husband’s infidelity. He basically goaded her into murdering her husband, and then tries to kill her once she starts speaking again so she can’t dob him in. He gets his just desserts, though, because Alicia magically manages to scribble out one last diary entry pointing to him as her killer.

Looking over that paragraph, it all sounds a lot more complicated than it felt as I was reading The Silent Patient. I suppose the frequent allusions to Greek mythology and the clues that Michaelides peppered throughout the novel made it all feel quite natural and inevitable as it played out. So, this might be one you just have to read for yourself to form a complete picture. I’m not sure it *quite* lives up to the unbelievable hype, but it’s definitely a decent, pacy read for the next time you want some twists and turns in your literary life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Silent Patient:

  • “The author did as much as he could to wreck the plot, and he succeeded.” – Donna
  • “Yet another “bestseller” glamorizing a psychopathic man-baby who deals with infidelity by torturing and killing innocent women.” – Dave
  • “OOOOh, how mysterious! Why is the patient silent? She likely didn’t want to be included in this boring novel. But she had no control, poor thing.” – frances henry
« Older posts