originally published (UK) 2017
The Silent Companions is my real-world book group's pick for our meeting on October 30th. I racked my brains trying to come up with a book that would be a good Halloween-ish read -- I could have, of course, easily gone and scanned my shelves for a title but the women in my group tend to not share my love of dark dark books, so it was tricky. I needed to find a novel that would not only fit in with the occasion, but one that was well written with intelligent themes that would hopefully provide for some good discussion. When I found out about The Silent Companions, I added it to the list. I will confess that near the midpoint of this novel, I was beginning to regret my choice because the book was moving along at a slow pace, but just after complaining about it on Goodreads, a few pages later I was actually hooked and couldn't put the book down. It's not great literature, but on the other hand, it's fun, it's creepy, and once I got in the groove of its gothic weirdness, I couldn't stop turning pages. Certainly it isn't without its faults, but it is a perfect Halloween read, just filled with that lovely ambiguity that made me wonder if there's more than meets the eye here, right up until the very last page.
This book spans three different timelines, alternating between present and the past. First, as the novel opens, we find ourselves in main character Elsie Bainbridge's present, which, as we learn pretty quickly, is during Elsie's time in an asylum where she is undergoing a psychological assessment. Before her doctor can pass judgment, though, he begs her to tell the truth about the events that landed her there, but Elsie cannot speak. Giving her a slate, and then later a pencil and paper, he encourages her to write down all she knows, and we are immediately taken back to the time before Elsie's incarceration when she had first arrived at the Bainbridge family home, The Bridge, in 1865. Her husband Rupert had gone ahead of her, leaving Elsie in London while he got the place ready for the two of them and their unborn baby, but his unexpected death while at the house brings Elsie there as a woman in mourning. Also at The Bridge are a handful of servants, as well as Rupert's cousin Sarah, who had served as lady's companion and who is now at The Bridge to keep Elsie company. It doesn't take long until Elsie becomes aware of strange noises that seem to emanate from a room that has always been kept locked, but that's just the beginning of a series of bizarre events that plague the household. The house itself has a long history and a dark past that continues to keep the villagers away, which is reflected in the third timeline (the 1630s) during the reign of Charles I. I'm not saying another word about the actual plot here or how the time periods interweave; I was perfectly happy not knowing anything at all about this story until I'd it read it.
|from Treasure Hunt
The Silent Companions has it all: hints of witchcraft, gypsies, locked rooms, strange noises, a black cat, eerie happenings, madness and an asylum, but as the title suggests, the centerpiece of this story is "the silent companions." The photo above is one of these and is the cover image of the Penguin edition of this book; they are also called "dummy boards," which as noted by the blogger at Treasure Hunt, were made out of wood, but had a "lifelike quality" which could "render them a little spooky as you suddenly come upon a solemn little child, a gesturing servant or even a soldier with gun at the ready." The first of the silent companions is discovered in a locked garret, but soon others begin to appear, heightening the already-existing tensions within the household, making for a creepy and unforgettable tale.
As I said earlier, the book starts out very slowly and sort of trudges along for a while as we get the picture of the house and its environs as well as the people within, but that all changes very quickly just about midway and zooms toward the ending. Aside from the atmospheric sense of place and time that is built into this story, the best part of this book is the underlying and particularly unsettling sense of ambiguity that not only ratchets up the tension, but makes you want to question everything you've read after finishing.
Considering that I prefer my horror from yesteryear, the author's done a fine job here and I can certainly recommend this novel. Do yourself a favor and carve out a few hours -- once the creepiness gets rolling, it doesn't let up.