Halloween may be far behind us, but there was still a slightly spooky book that I was dying to get my hands on. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell has received rave reviews both on and offline, with many people stating that it was almost too frightening to finish reading! Hearing this really intrigued me as I love a book that isn’t a horror but which still has the power to unsettle me. Likewise, The Silent Companions is actually historical fiction primarily set in the Victorian era, and I love anything Victorian or historical fiction related.
As if the above selling points weren’t enough, the plot also sounded completely intriguing. The book follows the central character of Elsie, a newly married and newly widowed woman who is sent to her deceased husbands aged estate, The Bridge, to see out her pregnancy. From the moment she arrives Elsie feels uncomfortable, with both superstitious villagers and the somewhat resentful staff who surround her. Even the estate does not welcome her in, with its cold rooms and creaking floorboards which only work to agitate Elsie further. Yet further company is soon to make its way to Elsie after the discovery of a locked room full of ancestral diaries and the mysterious wooden figure of the first silent companion. As time passes, Elsie begins to realise all is not as it seems, and that even a piece of wood may hold far more secrets than she can imagine.
The opening of this novel is very effective from the beginning, starting readers off with Elsie as she is in the present time frame. This is still very much in the Victorian period, with Elsie being stowed away in St Joseph’s Hospital. It doesn’t take long for us to realise that Elsie has been locked away in this hospital for a reason, with her mental stability under scrutiny, as well as her past being shadowed under the suspicions of a shocking crime. Whatever has happened has traumatised Elsie to the point that she no longer speaks, preferring the blissful ignorance of remaining in a drugged up state. The arrival of Dr Shepherd, however, the new Doctor working on Elsie’s case, threatens to open wide all of the fortresses she has put in place to protect herself. Even within the first few pages we long to see Dr Shepherd success, already instantly curious as to what has befallen Elsie and how she has ended up imprisoned in this hospital.
The thing which I enjoyed the most in the novel and the real crux of it in my opinion was the very varied narrative structure within it. Essentially we have three different timelines working simultaneously together; the present, the past, and the very distant past. As already mentioned, the present tense sees Elsie confined to St Josephs Hospital as Dr Shepherd works to recover her memories of the past. We then have flashbacks to the near past, following Elsie from her first arrival at the Bridge up until the events which lead her to her stay in St Josephs Hospital. Added on to this however is a third narrative structure, this one set in a much older time frame of the 1600’s and following the diary entries of the lady of the estate at that time.
These three structure work together to build our picture of the novel as a whole, each timeline complimenting the others. Although it might seem confusing to have three different times within the plot, the author pulls it off with great skill, never allowing the novel to become confusing or overpowering. As you advance further in one time frame you begin to notice subtler plot points in the others, with each time frame working independently but also cohesively to enhance our knowledge. What I will say is that because of the way the novel was almost split into three parts I felt as if it was a little bit too short for my liking. I feel as if I could have read more in depth for each of the different narratives, really working to build an even bigger picture of the characters and each of their situations. As it is I think the novel works very well, but I just would have liked that little bit more from each part.
This novel has been classified by many as terrifying and I can certainly see why. I’m someone who reads quite a lot of Gothic and creepy reads, with the likes of Stephen King being a favourite of mine. What I will say is don’t let the idea of this being scary put you off at all. It’s not jumpy or gruesome horror, but instead is a more carefully controlled way of creating this unsettling feeling within us. There’s no denying the book is creepy, and whilst I don’t want to give away the main plot points I will say that the author has used a very clever device to instill this terror within us. As you read the novel you can’t help but place yourself in the characters shoes. As I read I could feel a hundred eyes upon me; I could imagine something creeping up unknowingly behind me just ready to strike. The idea that you’re being stalked and that you can’t outrun your tormentor is one which is prevalent throughout this book and works really well to set your spine tingling. I though the creepiness within this was at a perfectly skilled level and the author has done a brilliant job.
As a large portion of this novel is set within the Victorian period there are a lot of social contexts relating to this. One of the ones which I always find fascinating and I was thrilled to examine in this novel was the ideas surrounding female gender, specifically in regards to madness. When we see Elsie being treated at the hospital the new Doctor seems quite radical compared to his contemporaries, wanting to help Elsie and to truly understand her mind. Having said that, whilst he may be further along than his contemporaries, he is still incredibly sexist and old fashioned at times. He still treats Elsie as if she could be suffering from Hysteria, a common Victorian medical diagnosis associated with the female body, and tells her that:
‘It does seem to run in families, I have observed, particularly through the female line. Hysteria – womb to womb. Diseased blood will out. There is no hiding from it, I am afraid’. (p. 155)
I loved sections like these with really examine Victorian preconceptions. Throughout the novel Elsie is quite often dominated by men through some form or other, and it’s fascinating to consider how her actions, which went against the patriarchal society, may have contributed to her current situation.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I think it’s a brilliantly creepy read well suited to readers who may not like more conventional terror and horror. The characters are very well defined throughout, with many historical layers and conventions woven in throughout to create a piece of historical fiction well fitting to its time. The real triumph however was the plot, which was incredibly well layered and all the more intriguing as you read on.
‘The author has hit upon a plot device which is completely creepy, being both simultaneously thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. I felt as if I were being stalked with every advancing page.’
Publisher: Raven Books