Elsie, recently widowed and pregnant, moves to her late husband’s run-down estate. Accompanied by her husband’s cousin, Elsie despairs at this unforeseen set of events. How can she be lady of the manor with suspicious villagers and a house full of unfriendly servants? But the discovery of a marital ancestor and a ‘silent companion’ throws Elsie and her estate into something much worse than any of them could have feared.
This was so…far from its genre and period setting that after a few chapters of growingly incensed rage I made the choice to see the funny side instead.
It starts quite nicely story-wise. Elsie is in an asylum, unable to speak,which the doctor identifies as Elsie’s inability to accept or admit what happened. Elsie’s memory then takes over the narrative as she recalls the memory of her arrival at the Bridge and her disappointment at the company she will be keeping.
At night, she hears a scratching sound and thinks it’s the cat.
It’s not the cat.
Well it is and it isn’t; this may be the only animal in supernatural history to head towards the site of paranormal phenomena.
Anyway, the cat incites the discovery of an unlocked permanently locked door and with it the seventeenth century diary of Anne Bainbridge and the first of the silent companions.
The silent companions
Setting a gothic novel around the existence of flat, wooden paintings shaped to look like people is going to work very well or not very well at all. The companion is a thing – an object that inspires immediate discomfort in the protagonist whereas my preferred novels of the genre are spun by an atmosphere and things unseen.
The discovery of the single wooden companion is accompanied by Elsie’s thought that it looks like her as a child, though in the longer term this recognition has no effect on the story. There are soon more of these wooden figures, appearing from nowhere to look at or watch the characters.
There’s an incident along a corridor in which the companions are supposed to block the paths of Elsie and Sarah though it was odd and I was distracted by how unstealthy gigantic wooden cut-outs with wooden stands could be.
The history of the silent companions and their presence at the Bridge is explained through Anne’s diary, leading also to the revelations that Anne was a white witch and the previous lady of the manor.
The language in both the 1865 and 1600s segments comes across as unnatural and particularly towards the end, the 1865 characters are describing each other as ‘crazy‘ and uttering such lines as, ‘Shut up – shut the hell up!‘
If a character insists on wearing corsets and living by oil lamps, the rule surely is that they speak from the same period of time.
The 1600s sections are in some ways worse with an effort to use ‘old’ words which creates the idea of a faux medium dreaming up characters for Ye Olde Spirites to channel through her.
Several characters die in some of the goriest ways possible, with one such scene suspending a body upside down from a ceiling fixture, blood dribbling from their mouth.
Against the gothic set-up, this doesn’t add to the atmosphere or suspense. It’s a dead body as much as its perpetrator is a flat, wooden cut-out.
- Secret baby
- Tired estate
- Noises at night
- Epistemological devices
Purcell rushes through some of these elements towards the end, though I was so done with the novel by that point that the exposition read like a maniacal Bond villain cackling at his wit, which you knew would momentarily be bludgeoned out of them.
Penchant for haunted houses? Read this instead
When I became aware of the hype around The Silent Companions I was tempted to buy Purcell’s other book though would not go near it with a barge pole now.
Just in case you haven’t already stumbled across the following, I’d recommend these instead:
- The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield
- The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
- The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters