Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions is without doubt the stuff of gothic nightmare, with its settings ranging from a Victorian asylum and match factory, to a Jacobean country house with something sinister lurking in its sealed-off garret. There is a whiff of witchcraft about the place, and the locals shun it. As one would expect with such a novel, the boundary between sanity and the supernatural is a fuzzy one, and the reader is frequently left questioning what is real and what is not. What is clear though, is that some malevolent and murderous force is at play, but the wellspring of this energy is, ultimately, left open to interpretation.
In terms of structure, the narrative is circular, opening near to the end before diving back into first the recent, and then the distant past. In the main, this can be said to work, but there is much toing and froing between the three different timeframes, leading to a somewhat disjointed reading experience. That said, Purcell’s prose is often a delight, and for me she appeared at her most effective when deftly recreating the world of the mid-1860s at Bridge House, although there was the occasional jarring lapse into millennial idiomatic speech, such as the use of the ‘go + infinitive’ construction that some younger folk have taken to using of late; it slips uncomfortably from the lips of a mid-Victorian lady.
As for the ‘companions’ themselves, they are an interesting feature, and I have seen one such creepy creation dating from a century later; moreover, there is a pair of figures referred to as the ‘Good Companions’ in Lytes Cary Manor in Somerset, although these are fashioned from leather rather than wood, which prompted the writing of an earlier ghost story – Old Crotchet. The companions are, of course, central to the plot of Purcell’s novel, but whereas the presence of a small number of these oddities seemed essential to the story’s writing, their later multiplication into a veritable horde of zombie-like wooden entities for me broke any sense of suspense during the last sixty or so pages of the book. All sense of restraint seemed lost, and the action became overwrought, with the companions crowding about and closing in on the protagonist as if she were in some deranged video game, but without a gun to confront her assailants. For readers belonging to a younger demographic, this might appeal, but it left me cold.
In terms of its setting and theme, The Silent Companions possesses a certain overlap with Alison Littlewood’s The Crow Garden, which although commercially less successful, struck me as a more satisfying piece of writing. Littlewood’s excursion into the Victorian Gothic, however, was focused primarily upon the world of the insane asylum, offering up an enchanted brew of mesmerism, madness and the parting of the veil, rather than being a ghost story.
Overall, The Silent Companions was an engaging, albeit flawed, read.