Book Review: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Historical Fiction
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Penguin Books (March 6, 2018)
Length: 320 pages
For fans of atmospheric Gothic horror, it doesn’t get much better than this. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is the kind of book that sneaks up on you like a cold draft. Soon after snaking its chilly tendrils down your collar and sending shivers down your spine, it’ll send you scurrying under the covers and make you want to stay there until the sun is up and the house is bright and warm and safe again. This is most definitely a story you’ll want to read in the light of day, when there are no shadows in which the things that go bump in the night can hide.
Set in 1865, the novel follows protagonist Elsie Bainbridge, owner of a London-based match factory that she co-manages with her younger brother. While her engagement to the heir of the distinguished Bainbridge family did cause a mild stir among the members of the gentry who felt she was marrying above her station, Elsie didn’t care—she was happy, in love, and relieved to be saved from the fate of spinsterhood. Mere months after the wedding, however, her husband Rupert dies under mysterious circumstances while making preparations at The Bridge, his family’s deteriorating estate out in the country. It was where the couple had hoped to welcome their first child.
Now instead of looking forward to a new life with Rupert, Elsie arrives at The Bridge grieving and pregnant, accompanied by Sarah, her husband’s peculiar cousin. The village is unwelcoming, her servants are rude and untrained, and the place is practically falling apart. At night, a strange hissing sound comes from the garret behind a closed door that won’t unlock to any key, but one day it suddenly opens to Elsie, revealing Bainbridge relics that have sat hidden for generations. Among them are a couple diaries dated from the 1600s, as well as a painted wooden figure of a little girl that looks so disturbingly lifelike that at first glance she could have been mistaken for the real thing.
After finishing this book, I went and did some googling, finding out tons of interesting information about these flat wooden oil-painted trompe l’oeil figures, known as “silent companions” or “dummy boards”, which were all the rage among aristocrats from the 17th through to the 19th century. Their exact purpose is still unknown, though everything from decorative use to security application by making potential burglars think someone is home has been floated by historians. Whatever the case, I find the concept behind them creepy as hell and reading this novel has not helped one bit. My skin still crawls from the memory of the spookier moments, and why anyone would want these wooden figures in their house with their unsettling gazes staring back at you is beyond me.
Needless to say, The Silent Companions was an intensely eerie and atmospheric read. It’s a bit of a slow-burner to start, as the story establishes itself because it is told in two timelines—one follows Elsie in the present as she is convalescing at an asylum following a series of tragic events, while the other is presented as a written account to her doctor about what she remembers happening to her. Interspersed throughout both narratives is also a third voice, taken from the diaries found in the garret. As the story unfolds, secrets within all three perspectives are gradually revealed, completing the full picture. One quickly learns not to take anything at face value when it comes to this book, with my own experience involving several complete reevaluations of everything I thought I knew about the situation and characters—which was pretty much every time a new surprise or revelation came to light. What’s even more impressive is that despite all the twist and turns, every piece of the puzzle ended up coming together seamlessly—planned and executed to perfection.
Time to put The Silent Companions on your wishlists, folks, for this is one Victorian ghost story you won’t want to miss. It’s portentous and gloomy, written in a subtle way that makes the dread creep slowly into your mind. It’s the type of scary that makes you feel on edge and nervous for the characters, and yet it’s impossible to tear your eyes away even when things become too terrible and tragic to watch. If you love horror fiction, especially books about hauntings, I just can’t recommend this one enough.