Book Review: The Silent Companions

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Many thanks to Penguin Books for sending a copy of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions.  This was a novel that I was eager to read, as I’m an enormous fan of all things creepy and mysterious.  Quite frankly, the scarier the better for this Hoarder.

The Silent Companions follows the troubled life of Elsie Bainbridge, a young and pregnant widow who has recently inherited her husband’s fortune, sprawling manor (called The Bridge), and interestingly, his cousin.  Elsie moves into his crumbling estate, with its odd servants and creaky floors, and soon starts to notice that something isn’t quite right.

The novel, it should be noted, skips around between three linked stories.  One is about a young and intelligent Elsie who lives in the manor.  The other is about a terribly disfigured and mute Elsie in an asylum, who’s facing a hanging for unspecified crimes.  The last story actually propels the reader back to the time of Elsie’s ancestors, who had interesting and dark problems of their own.  Each story is not only haunted by the otherworldly, but it’s also haunted by the people themselves.  I dare you to find a happy character.

What are the silent companions?  They’re wooden cutouts of people, which harken back to the 17th century.  Not exactly at the top of my decoration list, but I’m sure some of them had their charm.  The trouble with the companions in this story was that they were never quite where they were supposed to be.  Turn your back on them, and they might just vanish.  Look up to an upstairs window, and you just might see one peering down.  Notice scurrying on the floor behind you, only to see that a wooden cutout was suddenly closer.  These moments certainly offered moments of cringe, but they were not your typical jump scares.  This isn’t a bad thing.  Sometimes, a subtle chill is better.

It’s when people started to die that Elsie made a connection between the cutouts and sudden tragedies.  She orders them burned.  All of them.  Does it work?  I think you know the answer to that question.  No.  They come back.  Over and over.

This is where the creep factor made a hasty exit for me.  I could not fully succumb to the terror of a wooden picture board.  The premise was clever; that is not in question.  My trouble was that I was not terribly fond of Elsie, and wanted much more detail about her ancestor, Anne Bainbridge.  This was a woman who conjured a pregnancy from potions and chants, and wound up with a troubled baby girl.  For me, The Silent Companions did not become animated until Anne’s diary was discovered, and we finally got a glimpse of her life with her mute daughter Hetta, and the evil that lurked in every dark corner.  Hetta was a horror story all by herself.  SHE was the gothic tale that I was anticipating.  Had the novel revolved around this young lady, this would have been a very different review.

What was well done in this story was the imagery and the pathetic fallacy.  The darkness of the surroundings, the biting cold of the air, the mucky earth, stinging rain and sterile walls of the asylum – all were effective in painting a lonesome and haunting life story.  They threaded the three narratives together very well, which helped with the story transitions.

On an equally positive note, I think that this story would do well on the big screen.  There are tricks of the eye that could catch movie patrons off guard, and I honestly think that the end effect could be pretty frightening.  The background scuttling that happened throughout the book is perfect for a pitch black theater.

So there’s something you don’t see everyday.  A Hoarder suggesting that the printed story might do better as a film.  Now THAT’S terrifying.

Overall, I liked the book, but I just wished that it packed more of a punch.  I also liked how the novel closed.  Nothing like a final disturbing wink from the author to put a smile on a reader’s face.

3 stars for The Silent Companions.