Strange companions in loneliness
The silent companions
Author- Laura Purcell
Publisher- Bloomsbury, Rs 599
A new addition to the Victorian Gothic romance genre, this novel follows the story of a young widow who comes across a rather strange companion in the form of paintings, writes TANYA MALIK
A young woman with a troubled childhood, grieving the loss of her husband and unborn child is institutionalised for burning her house down. Has the mental illness that runs in her family finally manifested itself or is there something more than meets the eye? How did Mrs Elsie Bainbridge end up in an asylum… burnt, mute and with no recollection of the grave crimes she is accused of.
With the hangman’s noose dangling over her head, Elsie’s fate rests on the doctor’s evaluation report. The young and progressive doctor in-charge encourages Elsie to remember anything that might help her case. On Dr Shepherd’s insistence, she begins to write about her life prior to institutionalization. As memory beckons and Elsie recalls the events that led her here, what unfolds before us is an enchanting tale of intrigue and horror.
Far moved from her usual life in London, Elsie arrives at her late husband’s country mansion, The Bridge, accompanied by Sarah, her husband’s poor cousin. A small household staff and hostile locals welcome them to the crumbling property. As Elsie and Sarah explore the family home, they unearth a diary of an ancestor and paintings on wooden cut-outs that look peculiarly animated, as if almost real. They learn that these are called Companions and due to their lifelike quality, used to provide respite from solitude. They bring one down to be displayed in the living room.
What follows then is a series of odd incidents, all involving the companions in some way or other. There seem to be more and more of them, an eye movement here, a hand imprint on the window there. Are the strange happenings in the house of human or paranormal origin?Who is responsible? Is the grieving widow’s mind tricking her? Is it the poor cousin deprived of parents, love and inheritance? Is it the housekeeper with a secret, wary of the new occupants? Is it a silly, harmless mischief of the maids? Is it the locals, wary of the property and its history?
When our mind starts dissecting the events and asks us troubling questions, when our own fears become entwined with that of the characters, we know we have laid hands on a good horror story. That’s something The Silent Companions achieves competently. Eerily, the narrative makes way into your consciousness. From being slightly spooky to outright creepy, it gnaws at your imagination, until you suddenly find yourself gripped in an irrational, inexplicable fear of what is to happen next. A parallel narrative apprises the reader of the contents of the aforementioned diary. It belonged to Anne Bainbridge — the woman who had taken help of herbs and incantations to conjure up a pregnancy that wasn’t; the mother of a lonely, mute girl who was thought to be an aberration; Anne who had bought the companions to please her guests; Poor Anne, condemned as a diabolical witch responsible for several violent deaths; Anne, who saw the downfall her digression had brought only when it was too late.
Abject loneliness and need for love and acceptance had given way to spite and malevolence. The sad fate of The Bridge was sealed and condemned to repeat itself over and over again. In the present timeline, history unfolds as it was meant to be. Things take an especially cruel turn when the companions are hacked and burnt..Death descends the house and it was one such incident that led to the burning down of The Bridge, Elsie accused of arson and Sarah missing. The themes of female bonhomie, autonomy, love, loss, loneliness and friendship, shine through what is essentially a dark tale of unfortunate events.
However, despite a compelling and a well written narrative, something feels amiss. Certain strong plot points and twists that evoke much curiosity are left unexplored. While writers routinely leave spaces in their works, enticing the reader to speculate and crave for more, in this case, an explanation would’ve elevated the fright quotient. Nevertheless, the novel is a nice addition to your Victorian goth horror collection. Almost like an ode to the horror genre, Purcell uses the usual tropes — secluded house, strange incidents, family secrets — to weave a gripping tale, capable of encircling the reader in cold mist of an uneasy fear. Go grab this blood, gore, horror fest and beware of strange noises in the dead of the night!
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