cover image The Silent Companions

The Silent Companions

Laura Purcell. Penguin, $16 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-14-313163-2

Purcell’s debut is an atmospheric, eerie Victorian gothic novel centered around a decaying English country estate. Elsie has married into the Bainbridge family, which “had a nasty habit of losing their heirs.” Her own family history is similarly grim, her father having died gruesomely in an accident at the family’s matchstick factory. The two households, both alike in tragedy, unite, and the result is predictably disastrous. Elsie’s new husband dies suddenly, leaving her the sole mistress of his ancestral estate, the Bridge, with its distrustful servants and collection of lifelike wooden props, “not a statue or a painting but somewhere in between.” These figures multiply, assuming the likenesses of people from the house’s and Elsie’s history alike. Are they manifestations of Elsie’s subconscious fears, or malevolent forces of evil? Purcell skillfully maintains the ambiguity as she splinters the story into three timelines: Elsie’s stay at the estate over the winter of 1865; Elsie in a psychiatric hospital shortly thereafter, rendered mute and amnesiac after being accused of murder and arson; and a 17th-century account (found in an old diary) that sheds light on the origin of the evil lurking within the estate. Purcell’s novel is more formulaic than, say, Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, but its combustible tale of a 19th-century woman tormented by an English country house’s creepy curios does produce sparks. (Mar.)