Some books are hugely hyped, aren’t they? The Silent Companions is one that I saw a lot of online excitement for- and obviously for the beautiful cover (the paperback is even more glorious.) However, it’s what’s between the covers that’s special.
Elsie finds herself in an asylum: unable to speak, with a reputation for violence and unsure of how she’s got there, she wins the sympathy of the doctor who is charged with writing her report. As a therapy, he encourages her to write her story down- and what a story it is.
The novel is split into three interwoven parts: the asylum; the house which Elsie inherits on the death of her husband, Rupert, after only a few months; and the house in the 1600s, through the diary of one of Rupert’s ancestors, who reveals troubling events centred around the visit of Charles I. Add in the scary, Silent Companions of the title (lifelike paintings on boards- examples here), which menace Elsie, her cousin-in-law Sarah and the staff, and a housekeeper who is ever-so-slightly wafting an air of Mrs Danvers about and you have a recipe for a Gothic story which is well worthy of a place amongst the classics.
Throughout the novel, I felt myself questioning everything- was Elsie mad, or was what she experienced real? Was someone doing this on purpose to cheat her out of her inheritance? What connection did a small, mute girl from the 17th-century have to everything that was going on? I also found myself questioning Elsie’s relationships with those around her, especially her brother, whom I suspected might have been more to Elsie and/or interested in more than his sister’s well-being. (Have I been irrevocably affected by Sarah Waters and Wilkie Collins, I wonder?)
This is the best kind of ghost story, one that keeps you guessing and never quite sure, even once you know the ending. It’s the type of book I know I will probably revisit at some point, if only to quieten my brain about what really happens in it. This book is a masterclass in when to be subtle in order to really have an impact when you need to ramp up the horror. I bloody loved it.