The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, had been on my to-be-read list for a while. Finally was able to give it a read and sharing my thoughts on the same.
It is a historical horror novel that unfolds and ends in a manner that was strikingly reminiscent of The Silent Patient. It begins in 1866 with a woman, branded as a murderess, trying to piece together her life and the tragic events that led to her being confined to a mental asylum.
Aided by a young and progressive psychiatrist Dr.Shepherd, she begins to write to uncover the details of the fire accident that had left her mute and badly scarred. But the comparison to The Silent Patient ends there and its scope is limited to the feel and setting of only certain parts of the story, while the plotline, genre, and characters, and atmosphere are entirely different with a strong gothic flavour.
An expectant and grieving widow Mrs.Elsie Bainbridge goes to stay in her husband’s ancestral home along with a female cousin of his, after his sudden and untimely death. Her arrival as well as the days spent in the house are filled with a growing sense of melancholy and foreboding. It is a house that appears to be haunted by more than dismal memories of the past and is a place feared by the local villagers who refuse to venture anywhere close to it. And for good reason too, based on the happenings. The housekeeper and the maids appear quite resentful of Elsie’s presence in the house. Disturbed by some scratching, scraping sounds originating from a locked attic, she decides to break open its door to investigate and fix what she believes to be a rodent infestation. Opening of the attic leads to the finding of the diary of an ancestor Anne Bainbridge and a painted wooden cutout of a girl that bears an unsettling resemblance to Elsie. The diary unveils another parallel storyline of a family that fell into ruin in the 17th century. The wooden cutout seems to have a life of its own as it perplexingly transports itself to different places in the house and is spotted with its eyes seemingly moving more than once. As if this was not enough, more life-like wooden cutouts of people who perished in the house, start mysteriously appearing in various parts of the house. This matter, among others, makes Elsie’s brother, her well-wisher and visitor to the house, cast suspicion on the maids who he believes might be playing a cruel prank. Strange sounds, followed by unexplained accidents, one more severe and devastating than the other begin to take their toll on the visitors as well as the occupants of the house. The clues to the happenings in the house might lie not only in the events from the past documented in the diary but also in a second diary yet to be retrieved from the attic.
As the story progresses, the characters from the past and present are brought into sharp focus and the suspense, nameless evil and eerie menace steadily rise in tandem with the emergence of a complex plot underlined with family secrets, racial tension, class differences, and women’s oppression in a Victorian era. The non-linear narrative beguilingly draws the reader into the well-woven storylines of Anne and of Elsie’s present and past making it a gripping experience. While the nature of writing does not make the horror jump out of the pages, it calmly conveys a decent amount of ominous unease.
There is sufficient cryptic vagueness and intrigue in the book to inspire animated conversations and can make for an interesting Book Club read. Love the way how the various important elements, imagery in the novel have been represented intricately on the cover page, giving it a stunningly exquisite effect.