Purcell uses many of the hallmarks of the Gothic genre to lay the foundation for her creepy novel. The main character Elsie is a young woman, out of place in an ancestral home that isn’t hers. The townspeople and staff are suspicious. There is a locked attic room. There are found journals and hints of witchcraft. What’s new here — the companions themselves — is actually very old.
In the 1600s Holland, lifelike, painted wooden figures were created as part of a movement called Illusionism. These figures could depict adult, children, royalty, locals or even animals. It’s not entirely known what their original purpose was, though some research suggests they were used as fire screens and to prank people. Purcell turns these inanimate figures into terrifying mannequins with a menacing presence.
Told through Elsie, the main protagonist, the reader hears her voice both as she tries to settle in at The Bridge and later as she attempts to explain herself to an asylum psychiatrist. The two worlds eventually crash together, and leave an unnerving suggestion in the air.
‘Madness, as we call it, manifests itself in many ways. People do not always wait and shriek as you say your mother did. But it does seem to run in families, I have observed, particularly through the female line. Hysteria — womb to womb. Diseased blood will out. There is not hiding from it, I am afraid.’
Slowly she let the slate and chalk drop from her hands. She could feel the past stealing up on her, the way a river inches up its banks in the rain; gradually lapping at her chin, filling her mouth. Pg. 130.
The question of sanity — is Elsie really seeing what she thinks she is seeing? — is a rather expected, and realistic, one. The more interesting theme of sound versus silence is used to great effect. These “silent companions” are anything but. While they do not speak, their intentions are unmistakable. They make horrible scratching and groaning sounds as they move about the house.
Had she really heard that? The senses could play tricks in the dark. but then it came again. Hiss.
She did not want to deal with another problem tonight. Surely if she kept wrapped up with her eyes shut, the noise would go away? Hiss, hiss. A rhythmic, abrasive sound. Hiss hiss, hiss hiss. What was it? … Hiss, hiss. She started up, every inch of her electrified. Hiss. Teeth against wood. Scraping. Pg. 38.
These unsilent companions are pitted against the character of Hetta, a young girl who lived in the house two hundred years before, introduced through old journals found by Elsie in the attic. Hetta was the daughter of the wealthy owners of The Bridge but she was not quite the same as her family. She didn’t speak. Hetta becomes a fierce and frightening force to be reckoned with in her parts of the story. Her silence is in direct opposition to the tongues that gossip about her and her family, and the prattling characters that Elsie is now surrounded by.
Published in the UK last year, I had heard multiple reviews say it would keep the reader up at night, that it was so scary you could only read it in the daytime. I did not find this to be the case. While some scenes are certainly unsettling and it is very atmospheric, this is not a scary horror novel. It is instead a mysterious, Gothic story that unwinds slowly through diaries, memories, and theories. There are no ghouls jumping off the page. The fear lies in the unknown and for the (un)reliability of sanity.
My thanks to Rebecca at Penguin for the review copy.
By Laura Purcell
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books (March 6, 2018)
Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches