The short version of this review would be – I loved it!
I spent the last few months reading books, which included either copious amounts of gore or dark/existential philosophical musings, and honestly, I was waiting to find a book, which embodied the classical gothic elements of story-telling without going into any extremes. It turns out – Silent Companions: A ghost story was exactly what I wanted to read!
Silent Companions tells the story of Elsie Bainbridge, who is committed to an asylum, awaiting possible trial for the murder of her brother and several of her servants, following a fire at the Bridge mansion. The book shifts between events happening in 1885/1866, starting with the rumours surrounding the sudden and tragic death of Elsie’s husband a month after their wedding; and events happening in 1634/1635, which provide little snippets of explanation as to the origin of the events two centuries later. The narrative also describes Elsie’s struggles to escape the gallows and remain sane, albeit while being in a drug-induced stupor.
What makes Silent Companions classically gothic is that the story does not rely too much on the shock factor like many other books and films do. Although stories set in abandoned or very old mansions may seem like a cliché, it’s Elsie’s account of the events that led to her “imprisonment” what makes the narrative interesting. The small and sudden changes in the interior of the mansion, the movements of the lights and shadows, and the cryptic messages are the details that complete the story and bring feelings of depression, helplessness, fear, hope and desperation. Usually when I read crime fiction or horror stories, I always try to guess who the perpetrator is and what the most rational explanation of the circumstances is. However, this time rather than thinking about the “who” and the “whys”, I let the story lead me. I held my breath on few occasions, because I was completely immersed in the book’s atmosphere.
Silent Companions also explored the problems of being a single woman, who has to deal with the loss of her husband in a remote village, where her only support is her lady’s companion and the mansion’s staff. In addition, Elsie also had to deal with the pressure of managing her father’s company along with her brother and not being taken seriously, because she is a woman. This makes her brother’s attitude towards her involvement a breath of fresh air, because despite his knowledge of Elsie’s struggles, both physically and mentally, he still wishes to include her in the company’s management, regardless of her gender.
Another refreshing moment was the psychiatrist’s approach towards Elsie, because it goes beyond the typical 19th century methods of electrocution and isolation. He is also an outcast among the other doctors and nurses, because he is certain that a more humane approach towards an individual’s problems may be more productive to the general well-being of his patients.
Final thought: You can always find someone who is way ahead of his/her time, regardless of status, race, ethnicity, gender, etc…
Nearly a year ago I was off on a holiday with my mother and we had some time to kill at the airport before our flight. I had, of course, brought a book, but my mother hadn’t, so off we went to the bookstore, where I spotted The Silent Companions. It immediately grabbed my attention, I loved the double cover with the cutout keyhole and the black and gold on white motifs. After a little deliberation I decided to purchase it. I read a little on the plane and that little was enough to hook me up. Much to my mother’s annoyance, I spent the first couple of days of our holiday glued to the book whenever possible.
I wouldn’t call this book a ‘light read’, or even ‘optimistic’, yet it was a refreshing break from other Gothic titles I’ve been reading (some discussed in previous blog posts). The main character certainly has her weaknesses, but she is not weak. She can spring to action, make decisions and at the very least try on her own. Unlike Le Fanu’s characters, she is not clueless or helpless and tries actively to help her condition. Her encounter with the young, enthusiastic doctor is proof for this. Despite all her inner demons and the mental, emotional and physical trauma she has suffered from the events which placed her in the asylum and the drugs she has been taking since, she wills herself to remember, to explain, to reason.
Elsie is not the only strong female character. Her companion, her husband’s cousin, is initially portrayed as silly and dim, yet becomes increasingly resourceful with the progression of the novel to the point of being suspicious in my eyes. In the events from 1634/1635, the lady of the manor is also a woman unwilling to give up. She wishes to have another child, a daughter, despite being told it’s impossible to conceive again. Her obsession with having a girl, and her actions when what she got spiraled out of her control set the scene for much of the following turmoil.
The tale is spun gently with each burst of memories of Elsie’s increasingly desperate to remain at the asylum mind. The writing style is simultaneously modern and remains true to the era the story is set in. The author is conservative with how much she lets on in one go, and even at the end much remains a mystery. I must admit, I have pondered a number of possibilities long after finishing the book, as well as the ‘rightness’ of the ending. Overall, this is an intriguing Gothic mystery, and I am glad I picked it up. I am excited for Laura Purcell’s second book, The Corset, coming out later this month (20/09/2018), as The Silent Companions has been so engaging and enjoyable.
Edition Published: 2018, First Published: 2017
Language book read in: English