Mrs Bainbridge is incarcerated in a mental asylum. Mrs Bainbridge has lost the ability to speak. Mrs Bainbridge is dangerous. When Dr Shepard asks for a pencil or pen for her to communicate, he is given a piece of chalk and slate instead. Mrs Bainbridge cannot be trusted with a pen or pencil. What has Mrs Bainbridge done?
Dr Shepard promises Mrs Bainbridge that there will be no electric shocks, no plunges into cold baths. He holds her fate in his hands, he must find out what Mrs Bainbridge thinks she has done, her version of events and what happened.
With the arrival of the doctor, Mrs Bainbridge realises that she will not be able to live out her days in this asylum drifting in an artificial warmth of opiates, dulling the memories almost, for a short time, into oblivion. This doctor has come to discover the truth, but nobody will believe the truth and Mrs Bainbridge realises that she already has her head in the noose.
It almost feels like we are hurled back into the next chapter, it is 1865 and Elsie and Sarah, a cousin of her husband, are in a carriage heading to The Bridge, her husband’s estate. Elsie is dismayed when she sees the dilapidated, run down state of the village of Fayford. The cottages have broken windows, hastily and shoddily repaired holes in the walls, some have the doors battered in. The villagers stay clear of The Bridge, many believing it cursed and we find out why later in the narrative.
When they reach their destination, we find out that Elsie’s husband, ten years her senior, has died and left her everything. His brother, who greets them at the estate, is none too pleased. Elsie did not know that her husband had changed his will upon finding out that Elsie was pregnant. This inheritance comes as a surprise. Her husband’s body lies in a coffin in the hall waiting for burial the next day.
The next chapter returns us again to, who we now know is Elsie, in the Asylum. The doctor is still trying to find answers as to what happened, he mentions a fire and Elsie is very upset. He shows her a clip from a newspaper. It is her covered in bandages and taken more than a year ago. Elsie is horrified. He tells her that four bodies were found after the fire, and that only the identities of two are known. He then shows her another photo taken only a couple of weeks ago, she barely recognises herself, and the caption reads, Elisabeth Bainbridge detained on the suspicion of arson.
Back to 1865 and after the funeral of her husband Elsie decides to explore the estate with Sarah. She is puzzled to find the door to the garret that was previously locked now open. Inside they find a life size wooden figure of a little girl. Sarah is very taken by it and wants to bring it out into the main hall of the estate. Elsie is a little anxious to find that it looks very similar to herself. It is after this “silent companion” is moved that strange things start to happen. A nursery that Elsie had searched previously and found pristine and glorious, ready for a baby, is now tattered and shabby, dolls and toy chests, disappeared. The rocking horse and cot now covered in dusty sheets.
The next day mysteriously the wooden figure of the girl has been joined by the wooden figure of a boy of the same age. Then they start to move into different rooms, their eyes shift and follow you. Then a third silent companion appears. I love this type of scary story, the subtle fright, so much more effective in producing fear when written well.
A second narrative runs parallel with the present one and is accessed through Sarah reading Anne Bainbridge’s diary from 1635. It takes place in The Bridge, as the Bainbridge family are preparing to host the King and Queen for a masque. We learn of the dislike that the villagers have for the King and that Anne’s daughter is mute, an undeveloped tongue the cause. Anne believes Mary to be blessed, but her father is furtively ashamed of Mary, and bans her from the masque, preventing embarrassment in front of royalty. It is in this narrative that we learn the origin of the “silent companions”. It is these “silent Companions” that make the novel work so well. The sense of fear and dread they instil in the reader as they pop up everywhere, eyes moving, multiplying in number. They truly deserve their place in the title.
A major part of the novel takes place in the cavernous halls and rooms of The Bridge, and paradoxically Purcell creates a feeling of claustrophobia and oppressive anxiety for the reader. You can almost feel yourself within the rooms of The Bridge, wondering what that sound was coming from the next room. The reader already knows there is a fire and that there were four bodies found, so while you are reading this past, you are constantly looking for clues as to what has happened. The enigma is slowly unravelled through conversations with the maids, events, and the past narrative, Anne’s Diary. To say more may ruin a marvellously constructed narrative. You will just have to take my word that it’s a wonderful tale.
If you like scary, gothic tales, with tremendous narratives, they don’t come much better than this. 5 Stars!
Laura Purcell is a former bookseller and lives in Colchester with her husband and pet guinea pigs.
Her first novel for Raven Books THE SILENT COMPANIONS won the WHSmith Thumping Good Read Award 2018 and featured in both the Zoe Ball and Radio 2 Book Clubs. Other Gothic novels include THE CORSET (THE POISON THREAD in USA), BONE CHINA and THE SHAPE OF DARKNESS (2020)
Laura’s historical fiction about the Hanoverian monarchs, QUEEN OF BEDLAM and MISTRESS OF THE COURT, was published by Myrmidon.