“When newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, what greets her is far from the life of wealth and privilege she was expecting . . .
When Elsie married handsome young heir Rupert Bainbridge, she believed she was destined for a life of luxury. But with her husband dead just weeks after their marriage, her new servants resentful, and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie has only her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. Inside her new home lies a locked door, beyond which is a painted wooden figure—a silent companion—that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself. The residents of the estate are terrified of the figure, but Elsie tries to shrug this off as simple superstition—that is, until she notices the figure’s eyes following her.
A Victorian ghost story that evokes a most unsettling kind of fear, The Silent Companions is a tale that creeps its way through the consciousness in ways you least expect—much like the companions themselves.”
My Thoughts: The publisher’s note at the beginning of my galley came with the warning that you should not read this book at night. After reading this only at night, I can safely say that this is totally accurate. This is one freaky ass book, folks. Think topiary trees in The Shining scary. You will never look at wooden figures the same way ever again.
The novel, like any good creepy one, starts out slowly. Seeing The Bridge through Elsie’s eyes, as a stranger thrust into a new world and life, puts us directly in the story. Because we only know what we see through her, we must trust her feelings of disquiet and apprehension as her time at The Bridge lengthens. That her cousin-in-law mirrors her sense of unease serves to confirm her reliability as a narrator. This, in turn, legitimizes the unfolding horror. Then the really crazy shit happens.
Part of what makes The Silent Companions so intense is the fact that Ms. Purcell puts us directly back into the 1800s and shows us firsthand the limitations women faced in polite society. We only get glimpses of Elsie’s childhood as the daughter of a match factory owner, but none of it is good in that she repeatedly mentions how she was protecting her brother from harsh realities. Later, as a young widow, she is not only forced into a life of solitude given the strict mourning rituals but she has to do so at her husband’s family estate – a place her husband was making ready for her to visit but had deemed inhabitable in the meantime. Even though she used to be considered a partner in the family business alongside her brother, she foregoes that partnership upon her marriage. Now that she is a widow, her brother makes all the decisions on her behalf, even though it used to be she who took care of him as they were growing up together. Even the housekeeper is in charge of the servants, decides which ones to hire and fire, and overseas their work. Through Elsie, we understand the chafing confinement of severe mourning and realize that while having money may have kept Elsie off the streets, it also limited her abilities to think and act in ways that are unfathomable today. You will finish the novel with a better appreciation for every right and freedom women have fought to achieve to date because Elsie’s life is stultifying in too many ways.
Added into the mix, we get the to see the story of Anne Bainbridge, a descendant of the Bainbridge family and the one who first found the wooden figures who feature so prominently in the story. Elsie and her cousin-in-law discover Anne’s diaries in the locked attic alongside the first silent companion. Through the reading of the diary, we see her own experiences with these silent companions and learn a little more about this unusual family. This becomes of vital importance later on as we begin to understand where they obtained their disconcerting appearance.
All of this – Elsie’s confinement, the strangeness of her new life, those damnable wooden figures – build slowly to create an intense story that makes you question your own sanity. Yet even though the novel starts out with Elsie in an insane asylum, we never question hers. We do not do so because of her cousin-in-law’s own reaction to the figures and her corroboration of everything Elsie witnesses. We also do not do so because we know Anne’s story. Because we do not question her sanity, we must then face what Elsie tells us about the silent companions and everything that happens in The Bridge upon her husband’s death, and what happens is not for the faint of heart.
Ms. Purcell, in establishing the creep factor, excels at the long build and the drawing out of the tension. From that first unknown but sinister hiss to the last horror-filled moment, she keeps your adrenaline pumping at higher than normal volumes. She capitalizes on the written word equivalent of the jump scare to keep you awake and set your pulse to rapidly beating. Yet, she also knows when to back off to allow you a chance to catch your breath, all the while lulling you into a false sense of security before she applies the pressure yet again. It is a masterful balance act that keeps your interest without losing the effectiveness of the low but steady stream of adrenaline running through your veins.
The Silent Companions is a true Victorian Gothic novel in that one derives pleasure from the feeling of horror while reading it. That feeling of adrenaline humming through your body is addicting, which is why horror novels are so popular. It also has elements of Edgar Allen Poe’s works with the scenes in the insane asylum. The fact that it takes time for you to get into the story is also reminiscent of Victorian-era novels, where authors believed in the slow burn rather than today’s emphasis on immediate action. For those who can appreciate such things, The Silent Companions is quite the treat. Just don’t read it at night. By yourself. In the dark.