Desert Isle Keeper
The Silent Companions
Laura Purcell is the author of two excellent pieces of historical fiction set in Georgian England, one, Queen of Bedlam, about Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, and the other, Mistress of the Court, a fictionalised account of the life of Henrietta Howard, who became the mistress of Prince George (later King George II). Both are excellent and eminently readable; they’re incredibly well-researched, well-written and informative without being dry. Her latest novel, The Silent Companions, is thus a bit of a departure, a mystery/horror story in the gothic tradition that is hauntingly atmospheric and downright unsettling; if it had been a film, I suspect I’d have been watching at least part of it from behind the sofa!
When we first meet Elsie Bainbridge, she’s a patient at St. Joseph’s Hospital for the Insane, and is widely believed to be a murderess. Having been badly burned in a fire at The Bridge, the old country house she had inherited from her late husband, Rupert, she is still recovering from her injuries, and is unable to speak or remember much of what happened. Her new doctor, Dr. Shepherd, is young, sympathetic and more progressive than some of the others who have attended her, and he encourages her to tell her story by writing it all down. He believes that her inability to speak or remember may be the result of suppressed trauma, and that if she can tell her story in a detached way, as if speaking of someone else, it may help him to understand her better and ultimately, find ways to help her.
So Elsie, who is exhausted, worn-down and wants nothing more than to escape from the pain and awfulness of her life into laudanum induced numbness, begins to write her story, which opens in 1865, shortly after the death of the husband. She married Rupert Bainbridge partly in order to help her brother’s struggling match factory, but found happiness in her short-lived marriage of convenience, and is now expecting Rupert’s child. Having received news of her husband’s death, Elsie is travelling to Rupert’s family home, The Bridge, accompanied by Sarah, a poor relation of Rupert’s who came to live with them following the death of the elderly lady to whom she was a paid companion. Truth to tell, Elsie doesn’t think that much of Sarah and finds her insipid, but they are drawn together as the story progresses and the pair eventually come to depend upon and trust one another.
As they travel through the nearest village of Fayford, Elsie can practically feel the hostility coming from its inhabitants, who are, she learns later, so fearful of The Bridge – believing it was once inhabited by a witch, and that its history is littered with strange accidents and unexplained deaths – that none of them will set foot in the place. The few servants who work there are not locals, and are very disgruntled at the appearance of a new mistress because, Elsie suspects, it means the end of the easy life they’ve enjoyed up until now.
Exploring the house with Sarah, Elsie finds some unusual objects in the attic, several life-sized figures painted on wood and cut to shape with bevelled edges to give the impression of depth. Known as Silent Companions (or dummy boards), Elsie is initially amused by them and has a few of them moved into the house, but when they start to appear in places other than where they have been put, and more than were originally brought down are found in various locations throughout the house, both Elsie and Sarah become convinced that they represent something sinister and eventually to believe that their lives may be in danger.
The other part of the story is told through the pages of the diary of Sarah’s ancestor, Anne Bainbridge, who lived during the time of King Charles I. Anne and her husband are to be honoured by a visit from the king and queen, and Anne is shopping in the village when she notices some unusual items in one of the shops – large, cut out figures that look very lifelike and which she purchases in order to provide a whimsical diversion during the planned royal visit. Josiah and Anne Bainbridge have a good marriage, three strapping sons and a young daughter, Hetta, who was born mute – but it quickly emerges that Anne is haunted by the circumstances under which Hetta was conceived. Having lost her beloved sister and best friend, Mary, over a decade earlier, Anne was so desperate to have another female in her life, someone to trust and confide in, that she drank a special tisane or potion in order to make sure she conceived a girl. But now, Anne is haunted by her actions – which could bring an accusation of witchcraft – and her husband takes care to distance himself from Hetta, expressly excluding her from the events that will take place during the king and queen’s visit.
Ms. Purcell does a terrific job of balancing the telling of the story through both timelines, and the way she shows Elsie disintegrating before our eyes is uncomfortable and masterful all at once. She keeps us constantly on our toes, making us doubt our narrators, playing with our perceptions and questioning whether those things we have just discovered or been told are real or imagined. If I have a criticism, it’s that the story is perhaps a little slow to start, but once it really gets going it quickly becomes gripping and completely un-putdownable – and even now, hours after finishing it, I’m still getting that feeling of breathless chills as I think back to it. The story is permeated by feelings of unease and foreboding, and the author really knows how to ramp up the tension; the latter part of the story is a rollercoaster ride of creepiness of all kinds – and I’ll say here that there are a few descriptions that don’t spare any of the gory details and aren’t for the faint-hearted. But without question, the book is beautifully written and the descriptions of the depressing atmosphere inside the run-down house and the dreariness of the surrounding countryside are incredibly evocative and put the reader right in the middle of those dark, oppressive corridors and damp, mist-shrouded fields; this is no idyllic English village or beautifully kept beloved family home.
We’re left with as many questions as answers by the time the story closes, and the ending is a real kicker – utterly brilliant and something I most definitely didn’t see coming. If you need explanations and closure in your books, then you might find the final ambiguity here a little frustrating, but honestly, the last lines fit the tone of the rest of the book so perfectly, I can’t imagine it ending any other way.
If you’ve been looking for a heartily unnerving, chilling gothic ghost story, then look no further. Just make sure you read The Silent Companions with the lights on.