The Silent Companions;
‘She pulled a page towards her. In the gloom she saw a void of white, waiting for her words. She swallowed the pain in her throat. How could she relive it? How could she bring herself to do it to them, all over again? She peered into the blank page, trying to see, somewhere in its vast expanse of nothing, that other woman from long ago.’
Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband's crumbling country estate, The Bridge.
With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile, Elsie only has her husband's awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks.
Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain? Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless.
Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder. When Dorothea's charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person's skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes.
But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.
The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations - of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses - will shake Dorothea's belief in rationality, and the power of redemption. Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?
Laura Purcell has been one of the most talked about authors this year, what with her two books, The Silent Companions and The Corset taking the book world by storm. I did not move for days when reading these books, and I can see what the hype is about. Purcell is a fantastic writer, her characters are complex and believable (I find that in horror stories, the characters are often stereotypes whose reactions can be so unrealistic), and I stayed on an emotional rollercoaster throughout both of her novels. She has more releases to come which I am incredibly excited for, but until then I thought I’d share my thoughts on both of these novels, and why I think that, while The Corset was one of my favorite books of this year, it wasn’t quite as good as Purcell’s first novel.
The Silent Companions is a tantalizing gothic novel, which is profoundly unsettling and the perfect read for Autumn. I think one of my favourite things about this novel was how atmospheric it was. Purcell’s descriptions conjure up a dark, creepy atmosphere that lasts throughout the complex narrative, keeping me engaged entirely in her story. In the second chapter, the descriptions of Elsie’s journey are so hauntingly beautiful, using symbols of death throughout: ‘Remnants of a grey brick wall poked up from the grass like tombstones.’ This morbid imagery sets the tone for the novel, Elsie' and Sarah’s arrival at The Bridge, and foreshadows following events. The ideal Halloween read.
‘’You have written of these ‘’companions’’ as you call them. You say you were afraid of them. But do you know what really scares us? It is not things that go bump - or even hiss- in the night. Our fears are much closer than that. We are afraid of the things inside us.’’
A foreboding opening needs well-developed characters to continue the reader’s interest, and Purcell has done an amazing job at upholding this. There are no filler characters in this novel - each one has its role that carries the plot. I love Elsie. She is either authoritative or tries to be, always refusing to back down and sit in silence. Her relationship with Sarah is oddly adorable, as they are both trying to survive The Bridge and its mysteries together, even if at times it seems that they are separate. I love how protective they are of each other. I believe that their closeness is what keeps them going, motivates them to find their way out. Sarah becomes Elsie’s one and only friend, and it is clear that she is reliable…until the end at least. Which I still cannot get over, btw.
I liked the idea of interweaving Anna’s narrative into the story, and I do think that she is one of the most tragic characters out of the novel. When her husband refuses to talk to her because of the incident with the Queen’s horse, and how he disregards her only daughter, whom she conjured up just so she can have a friend, a female relationship. However, there were times when I felt bored of her adoration of her daughter, only because it featured so heavily throughout her narrative. I understand that it is a big part of her character, and it also stems from her loneliness, but I still found it slightly irksome. However, this is honestly the only criticism I have of this novel.
The Corset, on the other hand, is so different compared to its predecessor, and yet Purcell’s writing is so unique that it is also very similar. This book is still dark and haunting, and in some ways, it can be considered to be more morbid (stringing up a young girl and then beating her, starving her, dismembering her, before killing her and ordering a teenage girl to saw off her hand comes to mind).
Purcell’s writing, like her first novel, is so beautiful and exquisite, she really does know how to bring the Victorian era to life in our minds. She alters her writing style to fit the voices of the two narratives (Dorothea and Ruth), who are two seemingly different characters. It was so easy to switch POV in my head, falling instantly into the story.
What I like about this novel is that the history of this era is essential to the plot. Sewing and Phrenology, both of which were obsessed over by Victorians. Intertwining these two aspects into the narrative is a clever way to create a darker and creepier story. Sewing, according to some ancient stories, can lead to a disaster, as it was tainted with bad luck and superstition, especially if it were a man who was doing it. Women learned how to sew for survival and the good of the household, making it more acceptable, but even then, it was considered to be bad luck if you sewed while someone was wearing the garment. Also, let us not forget how easy it can be to prick yourself with a needle. Ruth proves that a needle and thread can be dangerous weapons if placed in the wrong hands.
Phrenology is the study of the skull, in which one could decipher someone’s character. The idea of a human being that is ‘born bad’ comes into play, and Purcell uses this to create a highly intelligent character who brings Ruth into the story. This allows Dorothea to develop as a character, as she becomes exposed to the harshness of the world: ‘’At what point do we cease to be merciful, and become fools?’’ Throw in the harsh social statuses of the time, and you’ve got yourself a gripping Victorian novel, made ten times darker.
Thinking of the books together, I can say that I prefer The Silent Companions. Although it was hard to pick a favourite, there were a few issues I found with The Corset that puts it behind the first novel. The first is that I did not find it to be as atmospheric as The Silent Companions. This could be because of the setting, or the storyline - I’m not sure which. Ruth’s story mostly takes place in the sewing shop, which just doesn’t scream Gothic Horror to me. However, the prison, Dorothea’s large home, and Ruth’s horrific family house helps retain that Gothic feel.
The only other issue is that I’m not a specialist in Phrenology, so there were times when I had to look up key terms and such. It did take me away from the story slightly, although I appreciate that Purcell does this to suit the time period - it is simply the language Dorothea would have used. Whereas with the Silent Companions, I did not have to Google exactly what they looked like to place them in my head; Purcell described them perfectly, so I was able to understand what they were completely.
Either way, I still adore both of these novels, and I am eager to see what Purcell releases next.