Published: 5th October 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
When Elsie married handsome young heir Rupert Bainbridge, she believed she was destined for a life of luxury. But pregnant and widowed just weeks after their wedding, with her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie has only her late husband’s awkward cousin for company – or so she thinks.
Inside her new home lies a locked door, beyond which is a painted wooden figure—a silent companion—that bears a striking resemblance to Elsie herself. The residents of the estate are terrified of the figure, but Elsie tries to shrug this off as simple superstition—that is until she notices the figure’s eyes following her.
It would be fair to say that this book is absolutely not for the faint hearted. Every turn of the page brings about an increase in tension as an unending sequence of dark and frightful incidents take place against the creepiest of atmospheric backdrops, making it an unsettling read yet also an exceptionally gripping one that was always difficult to put down.
Over the course of three separate timelines that are superbly written and realised, it provides endless intrigue and barely ceases to be haunting. The characters are highly authentic and you are made to experience the true unearthly terror of the story right alongside them, leading the sense of foreboding to become all the more palpable and profound.
It is 1865 and Elsie Bainbridge’s husband Rupert has recently passed away, leading her to inherit his family home, a decrepit manor house known as The Bridge. Accompanied by Rupert’s cousin Sarah, when Elsie arrives to live there she sees a place of disrepair which is feared by the locals and serviced by sub-standard household staff. On the top floor, the door to the garret is jammed shut.
When Elsie and Sarah go to explore the house one night, the garret door is mysteriously ajar and after going inside they discover the diary of Anne Bainbridge, an ancestor who had been accused of witchcraft over two centuries earlier. And standing in the corner there is a painted wooden figure known as a silent companion, tall and lifelike in appearance. At Sarah’s insistence it is brought downstairs, but Elsie is unnerved, for its face looks startlingly familiar.
More companions suddenly begin to appear all over the house with no rational explanation, striking fear into its inhabitants. Elsie tries to brush it off as mere superstition, but that is until she sees their eyes following her around and witnesses the first in a series of tragic events which eventually lead her to a London asylum where she now stands accused of murder.
The story actually takes a little bit of time to get going despite the atmosphere which is present from the start, but once the companions are unleashed and each of the timelines come into play it becomes incredibly arresting. There were many moments where it seemed certain that the plot could not get any more intense, only for something else to happen which lifted it to even greater extremes.
It is about as far from a light and cheerful read as you could possibly get, and by the end the death count is considerably lengthy as characters past and present succumb to rather gruesome fates. There are some shocking moments here and there, but all the same I was totally consumed by the story such were the many fascinating layers it possessed.
The most memorable thing about the book is undoubtedly the companions themselves, who together with the other unusual events that take place, are very scary indeed and have the ability to give anybody a sleepless night. They carry a threat that never relents, while their origin and the true extent of their deadly power is not expressly stated. If we looking for fictional comparisons, then their closest counterparts would probably be The Woman In Black and the Weeping Angels.
Two of the timelines involve Elsie, during and after what happens at The Bridge. These are both written in the third person and that was effective, though I feel like it would have left even more of an impact had the author opted to tell her story in the first person. The scenes at St. Joseph’s Hospital are relatively sporadic but raise a lot of questions as Elsie, rendered mute by her trauma, builds an interesting dynamic with Dr. Shepherd.
The other timeline is made up of extracts from Anne Bainbridge’s diary as Sarah reads it. Set in 1635, this one is in the first person and brings Anne to life as a complex and troubled character who sees her world fall apart. It was sad to read, but the context and the emotion of this part of the book are both captured expertly.
At first it seemed like Elsie would be a difficult character to like as she showed impatience and a lack of time for others, but over time several good sides to her personality gradually emerged. There were signs of a good backstory there as well, but sadly that was not explored as much as I had hoped, nor was her relationship with her brother Jolyon.
In a strange way, Sarah is arguably the most curious character in the book as she plays a key role in the central mystery. She was cheerful and spirited in a way that made her likeable, whereas Jolyon does not quite have the same level of warmth. Mrs Holt was always there in the background with her own secrets to divulge, while Mabel gives the story its only glimpse of light relief with her suspect skills as a maid.
The setting makes an impression right from the outset. It radiates gloom in every way and that is the case even before the companions are introduced, with the house coming across as dark, threatening, and increasingly claustrophobic. The nearby villages of Fayford and Torbury St. Jude are little better, as it is made to feel like they have never once experienced a single ray of sunshine.
Despite the fact it was not particularly engaging, the writing was very polished and articulate, which was ideal for the Gothic aura it creates. The reader is often made to question the bigger picture of the events that happen during the plot, and never is that more true than at the end, where some unthinkable possibilities were raised that forced me to reconsider much of what had gone before.
Overall, along with being extremely intelligent and well plotted, this book has the capacity to make your hair stand on end. There is death lurking everywhere along with occasional talk of witchcraft and devilry as Elsie and Anne face persecution several generations apart, all of which had me on edge right up to its thought-provoking final act.
Some of the characters die in quite horrific circumstances, and the way these are described provide the most unsettling moments in the book. This also extends to animals – so do be particularly careful if that is a potential trigger.
The other content warnings that come to mind include miscarriage, ableism, and veiled references to sexual abuse.
Atmospheric, creepy, and very intelligently written. It might be dark in many ways, but it commanded my absolute attention and gripped me until the end.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐