#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews THE THERAPIST by Helene Flood

All good crime novels are psychological thrillers, and all good crime writers are also psychologists, and will reveal in their work something profound about victims and perpetrators. Therefore, when the titles of a novel, its author, the narrator and its prime suspect are all ‘therapist’, expectations are high. 

Helene Flood is a Norwegian psychologist specialising in violence, victims and trauma, and this, her first adult novel, has already garnered the badges of crime-writing success: film rights, translation rights and book-prize nominations. Her knowledge and insight enrich an otherwise, possibly intentionally, ordinary story of a thirty-something married couple, Sara and Sigurd, and their families and friends. 

Sara is the first-person narrator, a psychotherapist, whom we meet on a Friday as she conducts therapy sessions with three young patients. Sara is married to Sigurd, a workaholic architect, who is always too tired to complete the renovation of their own home, and who left early that Friday morning, while Sara was still in bed, for a planned weekend jaunt with male friends. They are an average couple, both mildly dissatisfied with each other, and with their lives, work and finances. And Sara is lonely. So far, so ordinary – added to which these early set-up passages are overlong and overwritten: ‘the lump in my stomach struggles against the layer in which I’ve wrapped it’, or ‘a corner of the swaddled fear in my stomach pokes itself free’. 

On that fateful Friday, Sigurd leaves Sara a phone message to say he’s arrived at the cabin with his friends. Later that day the friends phone Sara to ask where Sigurd is. He never arrived. So, where is Sigurd? Why did he lie? Did he lie? The novel and plot gather pace – skilfully sustained until the very satisfying ending – as the lies and deception emerge, and the therapist becomes amateur sleuth, examining her own and everyone else’s personalities and actions for clues about her husband’s disappearance. Sara’s profession is to uncover lies, neuroses and inconsistencies, but she has a blind spot when they occur in her own life. We learn about her past: the early death of her mother from Alzheimer’s and the trauma that follows; her famous professor father, her lawyer sister. We also learn about Sigurd’s family: his glamorous mother, Margarethe, his brother and his father, who also died too young. These revealing, often lyrical, character studies are highly authentic social commentary – if you know Norway you’ll appreciate these portraits even more. Sara’s childhood home, still inhabited by her father, is wonderfully evoked: ‘hope and melancholy seem to have been built into the very architecture’. As a child she felt ‘improbable joy’ when sitting with her father in his study listening to tales of ‘great philosophers … decisive battles of the Byzantine Empire and epic poems from ancient Turkey’.

A police detective is assigned to the case, the insistent and professionally suspicious Gunderson, who pursues every clue, as does Sara, in her mind. As Sara’s patients, her husband, his friends and their families all become suspects in Sigurd’s disappearance, it becomes clear that she is herself withholding information. Sara becomes paranoid. Can she trust her own sanity and memory, the ‘cornerstone of my abilities’? As readers we inevitably ask ourselves too: can we trust therapists? Can we trust our nearest and dearest?

The question posed by the novel, about how well we really know those closest to us, is examined in credible detail with frightening revelations, all the more profound and realistic because they are posed and answered by a therapist. 

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

The Therapist by Helene Flood

Translated by Alison McCullough

Published by MacLehose Press (2021)

July 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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