Plot summary: Inspired by the work of Shirley Jackson and Susan Hill and set in a crumbling country mansion, The Silent Companions is an unsettling gothic ghost story to send a shiver down the spine…
Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge.
With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. But inside her new home lies a locked room, and beyond that door lies a two-hundred-year-old diary and a deeply unsettling painted wooden figure – a Silent Companion – that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself.
Star rating: * * * *
My previous experience of Laura Purcell wasn’t exactly amazing. I read, or tried to read, Queen of Bedlam, which is about Queen Caroline, the wife of the mentally ill George III. I didn’t even finish it, I struggled that much. It was the sort of historical fiction where the 18th Century monarchs run round saying, ‘Hi guys!’ You know the sort. It wasn’t great.
With that in mind, I was slightly skeptical about picking up The Silent Companions, although I was eventually persuaded by the glowing opinions of people I trust and the fact that the synopsis looks completely different. It also helps that the hardback edition of this book is stunning. I’m so glad I picked it up, because The Silent Companions is brilliant and ridiculously creepy.
Although Laura Purcell has once again written historical fiction, it couldn’t be more different. Instead of traipsing around extravagant Courts, we’re following an upper middle class widow who has been shoved off to a decrepit country estate to mourn her departed husband. It’s dark and dirty, and she is profoundly unhappy. There are no horrendous vocal anachronisms, so I never had to shudder at a historic monarch using 21st Century slang. The dialogue isn’t stilted and there’s an actual plot. So far so good.
The biggest difference, however is with the tone. Wow. The Silent Companions has a very gothic, dark feel to it, which is pulled off perfectly. Even at the beginning, when Elsie’s carriage pulls up to The Bridge, there’s an ominious feeling of foreboding athough you can’t possibly guess what’s to come. It starts off slowly but quickly builds up to being outright horror.
It’s not a ‘jump out from the behind the door, boo!’ type of horror novel. There’s no serial killer or boogeyman. Instead, there’s a pervading, creepy mystery that emodies itself in the silent companions, realistic wooden cut-outs of servants and children. I learned just now that they are apparently REAL things and have therefore abandoned any prospect of sleep for the next five months. I’ve never seen anything similar used in a novel before, and they’re the perfect blend of unnassuming and outright terrifying.
I wasn’t convinced of the need for the blend of narratives when I began reading this. We have present Elsie, recovering in a mental asylum, newly widowed Elsie who is just moving into The Bridge and the diary of Ann Bainbridge, the ancestor of Elsie’s husband and previous resident of The Bridge. I thought originally that the former was unnecessary and only served to bog the plot down, but I’d begun to appreciate it by the conclusion of the story.
The ending is magnificent. I was late to a Court hearing because I got off my train with one chapter to go and I just had to finish it. I then immediately texted Charlotte because it’s the sort of conclusion you have to dismiss immediately, and I did not see it coming. It completely blew me away and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.
I will say that it took me a while to get through this, at least at the beginning. It’s hard to say whether that was because The Silent Companions has a slow beginning, or whether I just wasn’t feeling it at the time. I struggled to want to pick it up again whenever I’d put it down. Regardless, it ended up being terrifying and amazing and I can’t recommend it enough.
Laura Purcell has another book coming out in September that looks to be along a similar vein, so I’ll definitely be picking that one up.