Title: The Silent Companions
Writer: Laura Purcell
Publishing House: Raven Books
Date of Publication: October 5th 2017
Rating: 5 stars
‘’I am not dead.’’
Goodness me! How can I write a coherent (and non-spoilery) review on a book that has stayed with me, haunting me (no pun intended) ever since I started reading? A novel that has definitely made it to my personal Top-10? A story that is haunting and ghostly, tragic, raw, darkly beautiful? The Silent Companions was everything I thought it would be and more. So much more than a ghost story, so much more than Historical Fiction. It is made from the finest blend of the two genres, it is perfect. In my opinion, at least.
Elsie, a young widow, travels to her late husband’s family estate in the 1860s. With her husband’s cousin, Sarah, as her sole companion, she finds an almost dilapidated dwelling, with stern, soulless servants that reflect the coldness of the entire village. As if that wasn’t enough, Elsie is expecting her first child and the nursery is the most mysterious room of the house compared only to the garret that must remain locked. Sarah finds a diary that transports us to the 1630s, a turbulent era when the terror of rebellion equaled the terror of Witchcraft. The prejudices against gypsies, against the invalids, against women who have a special understanding of Nature. Witches, ghosts, curses and troubled minds. A tapestry directed and supervised by the Silent Companions. But what exactly are these creepy wooden figures?
An early 18th century dummy board of a girl, in the Great Chamber at Trerice, Cornwall. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond (image source: https://nttreasurehunt.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/the-eloquence-of-a-silent-companion/)
The Silent Companions or, Dummy Boards, originated in the early 17th century and were popular until the end of the 19th century. They were oil-painted wooden figures that gave the impression of three-dimensional carvings. The reasons of their creation are still unclear, as they usually resembled the occupants of the particular estate. The main explanation is that these figures made an empty house looked as if it was still inhabited so potential burglars and looters were discouraged. Within the context of Purcell’s book, the wooden figures become one of the most disturbing presences in Gothic Fiction.
‘’No one was truly alone. Not ever, not in this house.’’
As should be the case in every ghost story that respects itself, the house becomes a character and the setting of a frightening battle. Purcell communicates the atmosphere in such a magnificent way…The description of Elsie’s journey to the estate in the second chapter is so beautiful, haunting, mysterious. It sets the stage for the drama that is to follow and creates images in the reader’s mind that speak of darkness and death. The word ‘death’ is repeated quite a few times. What could be more foreboding? There are whispers of strange deaths and the people of the village are frightening, unwilling to work for Elsie. And all of a sudden, everything darkens and darkens. The blood toil is unstoppable once it begins and its roots lie in the tragedy of an unfortunate family.
Dummy board from the second half of the 17th century representing a boy with a hobby-horse stick and an apple, at Chirk Castle, Wrexham. ©National Trust Collections
An exciting story needs equally exciting characters and The Silent Companions has them in abundance. Elsie and Anna are the main focus, two brave women whose fate is strangely sealed by unknown forces. I loved Elsie. She absolutely rules. She tells it like it is to everyone who fail to know their proper place, like the awful Mabel and the disgusting Mrs Holt. I also felt for Anna. For me, she was the most tragic character of the novel. Hetta, Josiah, Sarah, Jolyon…There’s not a single character that may be considered a filler or unnecessary.
‘’I need to feel the flames.’’
Purcell took many tropes of Gothic Fiction and wove them into a masterpiece. There are no insubstantial spirits, but hauntings made of wood, as alive as you and me. What should be innocent and kind becomes a demon, an instrument of utter evil. There is no ‘’in-your-face’’ horror that would seem unrealistic but an underlying mixture of uneasiness, an eerie, foreboding, claustrophobic feeling that escalates as the story progresses. There were certain scenes I will never forget. These are only a few of the things that make The Silent Companions such a unique, outstanding novel. And the end….well, it is perfect. I mean, it reaches the levels of perfection of Oliver Bierhoff and Ante Rebić. (If you don’t know them, Google them. Thank me later:) )
‘’You have written of these ‘’companions’’ as you call them. You say you were afraid of them. But do you know what really scares us? It is not things that go bump – or even hiss- in the night. Our fears are much closer than that. We are afraid of the things inside us.’’