Elsie Bainbridge, newly widowed, is sent to her late husband’s estate to see out the last few weeks of her pregnancy. With a skeleton staff, abandoned, dusty rooms, and a surrounding village terrified of the house, The Bridge is far from the haven Elsie hopes it to be. But when she and Sarah, her husband’s cousin, discover a beautiful painted figure behind a locked attic door, things begin to spiral out of control. The figure is not alone and she is not friendly.
At its core, The Silent Companions is a wonderful and atmospheric Gothic horror. A creaking Victorian mansion, shifty and secretive servants, paintings that follow you with their eyes, it’s all here and it’s gleefully exploited by author Laura Purcell. The unfolding story is aided by a 17th century diary, an expanding cast of silent companions, and time spent with an incarcerated Elsie after the novel’s events, and the need to keep turning the pages and solve the mystery is tempered by the knowledge that something scary might be lurking in the following chapter.
But the classic horror is also blended with a modern frustration, as every horrified reaction and spooky revelation is met with gentle words and murmurs of hysteria. Victorian sexism and classism loom large over proceedings, with Elsie’s background in the match factory, Sarah’s susceptibility to the weird and wonderful, and their isolation at The Bridge all helping to fuel the outsiders’ views of what is really going on. There are moments when even Elsie begins to doubt what she has seen, relying heavily on her younger brother, Jolyon, to help her make rational sense of things. It’s agonising and confusing for both character and reader – is it better to dismiss our leads as grief stricken women, or face the paranormal alternative?
Speaking of the leads, Elsie and Sarah are both excellent main characters, with Elsie’s no nonsense approach to life proving to be an excellent foil for Sarah’s delicacy and optimism. Though the book is told from (mostly) Elsie’s perspective, the changing relationship between the two women is integral to the plot. They shift from awkward acquaintances, brought together by their loss, to burgeoning friends and important allies in the struggle against an unknown evil, with Sarah’s experiences helping to anchor Elsie’s own.
In the best possible way, The Silent Companions is a torturous read. A modern take on the Gothic horror, it both frightens and frustrates, as Elsie and Sarah battle to be taken seriously in a society that is inherently designed to dismiss the social climbing widow and the isolated spinster. Packed with genuinely scary moments, it’s best enjoyed curled up in a comfy chair during a thunderstorm. With the light switch within easy reach, of course.