My rating: 4 stars
From the very first pages, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell is an intriguing, compelling and unnerving story. While in traditional haunted house tales characters have to face scary ghosts, in this novel their adversaries are even more disturbing thanks to their backstory and purpose. But the main character, Elsie, is also haunted by her past, which helps to explain her conflicting feelings about parenthood.
This novel is set in three different time periods. When we are first introduced to Elsie Bainbridge, she was a patient at St Joseph’s asylum and was being accused of murder. She was gravely injured in a fire that she was believed to have started, causing the death of two people. A new doctor wanted her to tell him her version of events, but what she really wanted was to forget. As she couldn’t speak, he gave her a pencil and paper.
In 1865, Elsie Bainbridge was heading to her late husband’s abandoned country estate, The Bridge. She was pregnant and only had Sarah, her husband’s cousin, for company. No one knew how and why Rupert had died. He was just found dead at the estate. Elsie hadn’t married for love, but she missed Rupert. She wanted the security that he was supposed to have provided. She was also not looking forward to having a child, as she didn’t have fond memories from her childhood.
Elsie had a brother, Jolyon. He thought that she wasn’t showing enough grief. That could make people suggest that she was in some way involved in the death of her husband, particularly because she was the only beneficiary of his will. Furthermore, after they got married, Rupert had invested in her brother’s match factory, where she had also worked. The author’s purpose seems to be to make readers question everyone’s intentions.
Soon after they arrived at The Bridge, Elsie started hearing strange noises. She went with Sarah to the room where the sounds were coming from. There they found a strange wooden figure, something in between a painting and a statue, which Elsie thought looked both like her and Rupert. Before he died, Rupert had done a research on such figures according to a maid. They were called silent companions. The eerie feeling surrounding the house intensifies when doors to locked rooms start to mysteriously open. People from the village also didn’t want to work there, allegedly because various skeletons had been found on the grounds. The maids came from other places.
“Something dark and insidious, all the way down to the roots of the plants that grew in the garden.”
Some chapters are set in 1635, two centuries beforehand, and are comprised of diary entries that were written by one of the first members of the family to live in The Bridge. They provide context and explanations for some of the events taking place in 1865.
From the beginning I was curious to know what had happened to Elsie. What occurred affected her deeply. The assertiveness that characterised her in 1865, which almost can be mistaken by arrogance, was virtually gone when she was at the asylum. As the book progresses, we realise that she endured a lot when she was younger. She is an interesting and fully fleshed out character. Although two parts of the book are told from Elsie’s perspective (in the third person), at some occasions we are almost made to doubt what she remembered about what had happened at The Bridge.
Unfortunately, not all of the characters feel as genuine as Elsie. The others, particularly the maids, seem to be kept at a distance. They are there experiencing utter fear, but they don’t feel fully real at times. This may happen because the story is told mainly from Elsie’s perspective. But some of the occurrences could have been more impactful, if I had cared more about some of the secondary characters.
Laura Purcell managed to create an unnerving and mysterious atmosphere throughout the novel. One little detail ends up being an extremely important clue for the final revelation.