Laura Purcell: The Silent Companions
Published By: Raven Books
Buy It: here
What the Blurb Says:
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. For 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…
What I Say:
The first thing I have to say is, can we all take a few minutes to admire this gorgeous cover?
I have to admit, that it stopped me in my tracks when I saw it, and the keyhole you see on the front, opens to reveal the full portrait of a young woman, who simply stares back at you which is immediately slightly unnerving and sets the tone for the whole novel.
I have not read any type of gothic novel since my days at University, (a long time ago thank you!), however the premise of the novel, added to the numerous positive reviews I had heard of meant that it just had to be read.
I am going to say from the outset, that I really did love this novel. It also scared the hell out of me and made me sleep with the lights on for a week afterwards, but that is all credit to Laura’s incredible writing, and the way in which she weaves a genuinely unsettling story that is not sensationalist or a mindless gory tale.
The novel works so well because everything is told in such an understated way, the genuine shocks and ‘What the hell?’ moments (of which there are many, believe me), work so well because there is no ten page build up. It is as simple as a single line, such as
“The companion no longer looked out across the grounds. She stared, dead and unblinking, right into Elsie’s soul”.
The Silent Companions is the story of Elsie Bainbridge, who we first meet in a mental asylum. Obviously traumatised by what she has gone through, she is unable to effectively communicate. With the help of her doctor, Dr. Shepherd, she starts to tell her story in series of flashbacks. The story alternates between Elsie’s time at The Bridge, which is her late husband’s estate and St Joseph’s Hospital. Anne Bainbridge, married to Joseph, and an ancestor of Elsie’s husband, provides another narrative, as we learn about her experiences at The Bridge in 1635, as well as through her diary.
Elsie, is the young widow who has to go back to her late husband’s estate, accompanied by Sarah, a cousin of her husband. We learn that Elsie has risen through the social ranks as a former match girl, and inherited everything on her husband’s death. She does not fit in with her former friends, and is viewed with suspicion by the class she has married in to, as they regard her as a gold digger. Added to this is the fact she is pregnant, and is facing the prospect of raising their child alone in a remote and unwelcoming home. Her only comfort seems to come from the fact that her brother Jolyon is able to stay with her for a while, reassuring and looking after her.
The unsettling events at The Bridge happen almost as soon as Elsie has crossed the threshold. At night she hears a strange hissing sound, but is unable to get into the garret where the noise seems to be coming from. When she does get in, she finds a beautiful nursery, which she mentions to Mrs Holt, the housekeeper, who takes her back to reveal a dust-covered and decrepit room, at the same time telling Elsie that no one has been to the house to open the garret door. We also see the wooden silent companions for the first time – a boy and a girl, made even more realistic as they have life-like faces painted on them.
This event is typical of the novel, and one that makes it genuinely scary – all the small incidents start to build to an unnerving crescendo which constantly unsettles and disorient you as a reader and serves to show you how scared and alone Elsie must feel.
Elsie’s ancestor Anne, bought the wooden silent companions from a mysterious shop, in order to impress the King and Queen who are coming to The Bridge. She finds herself inexplicably drawn to them and says;
“They were calling to me, watching me, baiting me to take them”
As Anne prepares for the visit, we learn that she has a daughter called Hetta, who was born with a deformed tongue, and is mute. This inability to communicate, adds an unsettling air, as Anne and Joseph sense that Hetta is something much more than an innocent child. Hetta seems to find solace in gardening and Anne arranges her for her to have some space in the garden which brings her some joy.
Not wanting to upset their potential social standing in front of the King and Queen, Joseph forbids Hetta to be presented to them. Feeling guilty, Anne hires Hetta’s gypsy friend Merripen to help with the stables, only for the Queen’s horse to be found slaughtered and Merripen nowhere to be seen. The Bainbridges are in disgrace, exiled from court and Merripen is on the run. In a shocking turn of events, Anne eventually realises that the evil in the house is her own daughter, and that she is powerless to stop her.
Elsie and her staff are now seeing lots of different wooden companions all around the house, including one of her late husband, Rupert. From reading Anne’s diaries, she and Sarah have deduced that the boy silent companion is Merripen, and the girl is Hetta. Elsie is more and more convinced of the evil powers of the companions and decides to burn all of them, but Sarah rushes down to save Hetta from the fire.
Suffice it to say, that from then on, The Bridge becomes a living hell for Elsie and Sarah, as the companions have no intention of going quietly, and they will not rest until they have The Bridge back to themselves for good. A series of horrific events leads to Elsie losing her baby, and she is trapped in a grotesque world she cannot escape from. As the novel moves forwards and twists and turns to its conclusion. Elsie and everyone she is in contact suffers unspeakable horrors at the hands of the companions. In a final bid for some sort of resolution, Elsie begs Sarah to get help from the police, and as she leaves, the silent companions move in to overpower Elsie. A final devastating fire leaves Elsie alone, implicated in numerous murders and with no sign of Sarah.
Dr Shepherd tells Elsie she is to be sent to a prison for the clinically insane and that her only hope is for Sarah to come and corroborate her story of the silent companions and the events at The Bridge.
At the eleventh hour, Sarah comes forward.
If you want to know what happens next, as always, I am not going to tell you.
The stark isolation, both social and geographical that Elsie faces, coupled with the unnerving sense of foreboding and the bleak gothic landscape, creates a narrative where anything can happen, as indeed it does.
The Silent Companions deserves to be read and savoured, and believe me, in one of the best final scenes in a novel, you will understand why I want you to read it too.
My review really doesn’t do Laura’s novel justice. It is a genuinely original, scary and unique piece of writing, that will stay with you for a long time after you have closed the book.
The Silent Companions is like nothing I have ever read, and I loved it.