The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell left me with mixed emotions.
No doubt, Purcell’s ability to create a suspenseful and eerie atmosphere is impressive. But there were some storytelling decisions that made the book more difficult to digest –– and enjoy.
This is going to be a spoiler-filled review, so CONSIDER THYSELF WARNED.
First off, let’s get into what made me what to buy the book in the first place. I was at Heathrow airport in the book shop, and I saw the cover and fell in loveeee.
I’m a sucker for storytelling that includes corsets and bustles, so when I saw that this was also a dark fantasy novel, I knew I had to buy it.
The book tells the story of Elsie Bainbridge, a recently widowed woman who is sent to live in her late husband’s remote country estate, The Bridge. Upon arriving at the house, Elsie discovers that it is in a state of disrepair and is haunted by mysterious wooden figures known as “silent companions”.
OK, but let’s back up, because that’s not where the book starts. It starts with a woman in an insane asylum who’s being treated by a young, empathetic psychiatrist. The woman has gone through some kind of trauma and is unable to speak. The doctor gives her a pencil and paper to write her story down.
And she is absolutely terrified… of… the pencil.
At that point, I’m thinking, “Mmm, unreliable narrator. This could go either way…”
But, THE CORSETS, a crumbling house and the story of a woman moving above her station beckoned, and I could not resist. I persisted.
So begins the nested storytelling (there are three narrators in the book, which is one too many, in my opinion).
The problem is that Elsa’s little journal for the doctor is SO WELL-WRITTEN, that it is a bit confusing. I thought, “Hold on a second… is this character a writer??”
Certainly that would give weight to her fear of the pencil.
Alas, Elsie is not a writer. She was the co-owner of a match factory but married a man who died very suddenly, leaving her to manage his estate.
The story is set in a decrepit old mansion that’s both ominous and captivating. I have to say, the use of descriptive language is skillful, transporting you back in time and into an unsettling world. I could really visualize the house and the creepy town.
As Elsie attempts to unravel the secrets of the house and its past, she begins to experience strange and terrifying occurrences that make her question her sanity.
The story loops back to the woman in confinement, whom we now know is Elsie. The doctor asks the staff to move a desk into her room to make writing easier, and she completely LOSES HER SHIT.
She freaks out about the desk and is convinced it’s going to morph into some kind of monster and attack her.
Again, the scene was giving very strong “fear of writer’s block” vibes. Or is that a projection???
Then, my friends, the “bad guys” show up. Instead of ghosts in this story, there are these painted wooden cutouts called Silent Companions, which actually exist, apparently.
The Silent Companions move on their own and terrorize Elsie, the random secondary character of the book and the staff at the haunted house.
I had to google what these wooden things looked like, because the author describes them, but it was extremely confusing. She had to do it with the characters’ understanding of things in that day and age. It didn’t translate. So, when I saw that the Silent Companions are the fancy equivalent of a cardboard cutout… I was… not scared.
Now, every time I see a cardboard cutout, I chuckle.
There’s one sound the author uses over and over and over in the book. A hiss.
When the wood scrapes across the floor, it hisses.
I found the repetition of that sound to be extremely distracting, because a scrape would not sound like that. Wood scraping on the floor is extremely loud and disturbing –– the equivalent of a 200 pound piece of chalk across a chalkboard.
There’s a climatic reveal about why it’s only that sound the woman hears, but it comes so late in the book that it felt like an afterthought.
There were so many things about this book I loved. The language and metaphors are beautiful. The character was interesting. I loved the gothic setting. But the pieces just didn’t add up to a cohesive whole for me.
I really do not like when any story leaves me with the unfortunate parting gift of, “Well, maybe they were just crazy after all.” This is what I meant earlier when I wrote that it could go either way with an unreliable narrator. I feel this particular usage of the unreliable narrator literary device to be cliche and unsatisfying.
If only I could have beta read for the author and helped her restructure the book. 🥺️
The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell shall receive only 3 of 5 stars from me.
Have you read this book? If so… were you thrown by the plot twist at the end?