Review: Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions

silent companions

Newly pregnant, suddenly widowed Elsie Bainbridge arrives at her late husband’s derelict country estate shrouded in grief and dreading her new life away from London. Her husband’s somewhat taciturn cousin hardly helps to alleviate her misery, and Elsie’s heart is heavy as she begins to prepare her new home for her unborn child. But little does she know that the harsh words of unfriendly servants and suspicious villagers will soon pale into insignificance. For when she follows the strange noises in the night to the garret on the third floor, she will unwittingly unleash over two hundred years of horrifying history, and spark a spiralling series of horrific events that will change the course of her life forever. It all begins with a musty old diary and a sinister, painted wooden figure that has a tendency to wander…

Mist prowling, silver rain lashing down, a funeral in a dilapidated church and a house that’s crumbling around its inhabitants—Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions is a deliciously Gothic tale steeped in classic Victorian style. Familiar and yet surprising, this is a truly unsettling ghost story quite unlike any other in that it is a subtle and yet profound exploration of the human psyche, as well as an unnerving delve into the supernatural.

‘Perhaps it was grief making her see things.’

Purcell effortlessly blurs the boundaries between disturbing reality and the fantasies of lunacy, continuously posing the unsettling possibility that the monster at the heart of these horrific events is, actually, Elsie. It is an unnerving exploration of the psychological composition of our beings and a brutal reminder of the insufficiency of reason. If the silent companions really are invested with a hideously malevolent spirit, we must allow for the existence of phantoms which we are usually so quick to deny as the figments of primitive folklore. If it is Elsie who carries out these unreasonable acts without even realising, we must face the horrifying reality that the brain is able to act outside the will of the individual to commit unspeakable crimes born of the darkest of memories.

‘The face before her eyes was her own but she felt no kinship with it. Go away, she wanted to scream. Go away, I am afraid of you.’

Is grief making Elise see things? Or are we as humans so desperate to believe that reality cannot be so irrational, so unreasonable that we cling to the notion that the horrific happenings at The Bridge cannot possibly being the workings of the otherworldly? These are the unsettling questions which we are forced to face throughout this eerie tale of witchcraft, murder and wooden figures which crop up in the most unexpected of places.

It is deeply satisfying to have found a novel that stays true to a hallowed genre and yet remains so captivating in its originality. The Silent Companions is the perfect spooky read for lovers of Gothic fiction and anyone looking for a fright on a dark winter’s night. If you’ve read it (and you really ought to), let me know your thoughts in the comments!


Success Is Like a Jigsaw Puzzle

I have never had the patience to do jigsaw puzzles. Why would you spend hours hunched over a table sticking together hundreds of tiny pieces in a tedious trial and error process only to recreate a picture that is already right there on the front of the box? To me, the entire endeavour has always seemed utterly pointless — until now.

You see, as a 22-year-old grad starting out in the big bad world, I’m starting to see the value in the process. Just like when you tip out all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, you’re faced with a huge, messy pile of options and it’s all a bit overwhelming. You almost can’t quite bring yourself to start, because you know that the process is going to be long and hard, and that there are going to be so many points at which you’re tempted to just give up. But you force yourself plunge in anyway because there’s got to be a way of making sense of it all and finding that one thing that makes all the hard work worth the while.

So you find the corner pieces and then you start to piece together the edges and you think that maybe this won’t be so bad after all — it might even be easy. But then you have to jump out from the edge and start putting together the middle, and that’s when things really start to get tough. You pick up piece after piece and you try to make them fit, and maybe a couple of them do, but then you can’t figure out how to connect your new bundle of pieces to the edges and everything starts to feel a bit lost. You’ve put six pieces together over there and 12 together pieces over there and there are three pieces floating around in the middle, and they all matter and they’re all the start of something but you can’t quite figure out how to join them all together. You pick up another piece but it just won’t fit. You start to feel like you’re back at the drawing board.

But you’re not — now you know that piece doesn’t fit, you can put it aside and move onto the next one. Slowly but surely, you work through the pieces, adding to your little floating piles as you go along, and eventually you find the piece you need. You celebrate, pat yourself on the back — you’re that little bit closer. But you can’t stop there. You have to hunch your back, refocus, and start combing through the pieces again. There are moments when you seriously consider giving up. It’s starting to feel like you’re never going to get there. You might even get up from the table and do something else for a while. But the unfinished puzzle niggles at you. The beautiful picture on the front of the box entices you. Eventually, you find yourself hunched back over the table because yes, it’s frustrating and long and difficult, but you’re invested now, and you can’t quite bring yourself to let it lie.

And that may be a trait in yourself that you don’t quite understand. Because what will you have when you’ve finished the puzzle? You’ll have the picture that was right there in front of you all along. But it’ll be different. It’ll be better. Why? Because your finished puzzle will be a beautiful piece of art that you put together yourself. You’ll have built an incredible picture with your own two hands. Sure, you’ll have had some guidance from the front of the box, but finding the pieces and spending hours trying, failing and eventually managing to arrange them in the right order will have been all you. And that’s going to feel amazing.

So don’t give up. Keep trying, keep failing — and eventually, you will succeed.

Conversations on Trains: Extraordinary Moments with Ordinary People

It had been a busy weekend away working, visiting friends and flat hunting, and I was glad to be dropping into my seat on the train home. I closed my eyes to let the sweet Sunday sunshine drape over my face. I love to travel alone by train, especially on quiet, sunny days. I leaned back, swaying gently in my seat as the wheels coursed along the tracks, drifting in and out of the murmur of conversation rising and falling throughout the carriage.

Trains journeys are also great for getting things done, and I was seizing the opportunity of being confined to a seat to concentrate on logging my hours and calculating my fees for a project I’d just wrapped up. I’d been typing away for about 40 minutes when a woman sat down next to me. She was one of those classy older women who radiate a poised elegance that’s strikingly beautiful. She had short golden curls and a bronzed, friendly face. She wore a floaty peach cotton dress with some earthy green sandals, and the two beaded pendants that hung from her ears winked at me in the sunlight as she unfolded her newspaper. It was one of those inspiring moments where you see exactly how you’d like yourself to be in 30 or 40 years.

After nodding hello at each other, we sat in silence for a while. Then, coming across leaflet in her newspaper, she turned to me and asked:

“Do you read The Guardian?”

“I do, actually,” I replied, laughing.

She smiled, handing me a voucher for a discount on the next day’s copy. “I thought you might.”

I laughed again, feeling my cheeks turn slightly pink as I thanked her, tucking the voucher into my notebook. We began chatting, and the conversation soon turned to why on earth I was working on a Sunday, so I told her all about my job and how it had taken me to Vienna, Seville and all sorts of wonderful places in between. She began to tell me about her life as a classical music publisher. She had cruised the roads of Rome with dazzling composers in their shiny cars back when you were still allowed to drive right through the Roman Forum. Her eyes began to sparkle as she told me how she’d met the love of her life and set up home in Camden, London, dancing through the 70s and becoming mother to two beautiful boys.

I was hanging on her every word, listening intently to how she and her husband had retired to south London together, filling their cosy home with happy memories of decades of marriage. It sounded beautiful, perfect, everything this wonderful woman deserved. But then her smile tightened and her eyes clouded over as her face flooded with a bittersweet remembrance.

“And then he went and died on me.”

I looked back into her smiling, wistful face and felt my heart shatter into a million pieces. “How horribly inconsiderate of him.”

I’ll probably never see this woman again, and I don’t even know her name. But in that moment where we looked at each other through teary eyes, we shared a moment of humanity in its simplest form. I found myself welling up over the loss of a man who I’d never met, on behalf of a woman I’d known for a grand total of half an hour. She found herself telling a small 22 year old girl her life story. And in those 30 minutes, she inspired me to work as hard as possible to lead a life as exciting, fulfilling and adventurous as hers.

There is so much we can gain from simply opening up to one another. And all it takes is a question as simple as “Do you read The Guardian?” Next time you get on a train, try talking to the person next to you. You never know what you might learn.

Invited Back to School as a Real-Live Adult: Talking to Year 10 About GCSEs and Post-Exam Life

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I think access to education is incredibly important. When I was an undergraduate, I spent hours talking to prospective students about applying to higher education, giving tours of my college and the wider university, and trekking across the country to deliver presentations to pupils in years 10 -13 in the hope that it would encourage them to apply to university. I think that every student deserves the chance to reach their potential, and that it’s our responsibility to make sure that they’ve got everything they need to excel.

With this in mind, I was thrilled when Y Pant School invited me to talk to a group of Year 10s about revision tactics, managing stress, and life at Oxford University. I was the first on the bill for their Wellbeing Day: a day dedicated to preparing students for the pressures of year 11, during which they’ll sit as many as 25 GCSE exams.

It was inspiring and incredibly encouraging to see a school dedicating a whole day to mental health and the importance of self-care. I crammed 24 exams into three weeks when I was in year 11, and I wish that there had been one of these days when I was a pupil! There’s an awful lot more to be done in terms of mental health education and provision in schools, but this day seemed like a pretty solid start. The year 10s I talked to were treated to tea and biscuits, and spent their day attending various talks and workshops promoting wellbeing and resilience.

I thought long and hard about what to say to such a sparky bunch of teenagers. I’d been asked to talk about how I went about revising for my exams, how I coped with the pressures of being a clever kid working their socks off, and my adventures since leaving school: studying at Oxford, working in Vienna, learning Spanish in Seville and building a career as a freelance writer. It’s both an honour and a huge responsibility to give advice, and I wanted to make sure that everything I said was constructive. It’s surprising and vaguely terrifying to realise that you’re a Real Adult with useful things to say to ambitious students!

So I told them all about how I hate revision schedules, and how writing things down helps me to remember them. I reminded them that it’s important to eat healthy food, and that it’s not good to stay sitting at your desk all day long. I reassured them that they shouldn’t worry if their friends are structuring their time differently, or if there’s the odd day where they don’t do any revision at all. But really, this was all just a preamble to the one thing I desperately wanted to tell them:

You are so much more than the grades on a piece of paper. You all have talents, you’re all kind and funny, you’re all someone’s friend, and you’re all going to do incredible things. Sure, these exams are quite important; but at the end of the day, you can just do them all again if they go wrong. And beyond that, they’re not going to change the fact that you are brilliant, interesting, lovely human beings. You can only do your best, and your best is enough. Don’t forget that.

We define ourselves by so many things: the grades we achieve, the jobs that we do, the money we earn. Sometimes, we could all use reminding that all of these things are just little parts of an incredible whole.

With thanks to Y Pant School.