As I have just finished reading Raven Books’ title The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, I just had to review it. I could not put this book down in the best and most disturbing ways. The writing is beautiful, while the fear embedded in the narrative often makes the reader feel like they cannot turn away, however uncomfortable it may get.
The Silent Companions is a ghost story revolving around Elsie, who moves into her late husband’s property; Sarah, her late husband’s sister and their maids. They have to navigate Elsie’s desires to make their house and family likeable to the surrounding town inhabitants, while being terrified by suspicious sounds and the companions who are creepily moving around the house undetected. This is interwoven with Elsie’s future narrative, and the story of Sarah’s ancestors who brought the companions into the house.
A great element in Purcell’s tale is her way of embedding her knowledge of Gothic literature, and other ghost stories without making direct references to them. This novel echoes the eeriness in The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, whilst embedding the fantastical elements akin to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Purcell’s novel could be placed within the ranks of these brilliant authors, due to her incredible use of pathetic fallacy and metaphor alone.
The novel begins in the thick of the story; Elsie has lost her husband and is travelling to live in his dreary, old countryside home as a widow for the next year. There are excellent elements where she is engulfed by the fog and cannot see, which marry well with a slightly comedic aspect whereby she is dishevelled with a torn dress.
From the beginning, Elsie is sassy and demanding. As the reader, I understood that she felt deserving of her late husband and the life they could have had together. She appears tenacious and headstrong, which can often make her unsympathetic and not as likeable. Her character improves as the novel progresses.
Sarah’s character really develops when they have been living in the house and they discover the companions and the diaries. While she appears quite simple in the beginning, her character is multi-layered and sophisticated in ways the other females cannot aspire to be. She takes all of her disappointment with grace; Elsie being handed the family fortune and house, being treated like a maid occasionally and often being disallowed from doing things in her own home. Her character really connects with Hetta’s from the diaries, and the parallels between them become further pronounced as the story progresses.
From the moment that Elsie’s son, Jolson leaves the house, the novel is very female-focused. The maids help the story’s plot progression, yet are also interesting characters, as they are attempting to figure out how to be maids for Elsie, who is more used to fully-trained city maids. They create dynamics between them due to their friendships and reactions to the companions.
Furthermore, the novel is creepy and chilling in unexpected ways. The movement of the companions and the responses of the maids creates tension which ultimately builds to the scarier sections of the story. The inclusion of Elsie’s future, as she discovers what has led to her fate, and the diary excerpts offer a variant in structure, which keeps the reader hungry for more of each section once a chapter has ended.
Purcell has created a work of Gothic genius, and I have a lot of respect for her incredible use of language and character development. The cover is beautiful, and it has been well structured and edited throughout.