The horror story
Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions has a fantastic premise: set in the nineteenth century, newly widowed Elsie moves into her husband’s creepy old house in the country to find that it’s filled with silent companions made of wood. The first hint that something eerie is going on is the splinters she finds on her husband’s dead face. The novel flashes between Elsie’s growing suspicions of the companions and two other timelines: Elsie imprisoned in a lunatic asylum some time later, and a third narrative thread set in the same house during the reign of Charles I, when the companions were initially purchased. The companions are genuinely scary – no easy thing to pull off – and there are a number of brilliantly shivery scenes in this novel, especially when Elsie is moving through the house at night! However, although I enjoyed reading this, I thought it could have been stronger. I’m much more of a horror fan than a ghost story fan, and The Silent Companions is annoyingly poised between the two. I struggle with ghost stories because they often run with little internal logic, allowing literally anything to happen, and The Silent Companions falls into this trap, even though the companions ought to have physical limitations (which I think would actually make them more frightening). This is particularly obvious in the twist ending of the novel, which Purcell can deliver because she doesn’t actually need to make everything that’s happened hang together.
Stylistically, The Silent Companions also has a few problems. The seventeenth-century narrative is unconvincing, told in exactly the same voice as the nineteenth-century bits, despite the vast differences between self-narratives in the two time periods. The imagery in the novel around ‘silent companions’ is often too tidily bang-on; our seventeenth-century narrator, Anne, has a daughter, Hetta, who is literally mute, and Elsie has to live alongside her husband’s quiet sister, Sarah, who has been employed as her companion. Entertaining to read next to a log fire at Christmas (as I did) but I was left feeling that this could have been so much more.
The psychological thriller
Sarah Vaughan’s third novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, sets up a very familiar psychological thriller narrative, with a political twist: rising Tory MP James Whitehouse has been accused of raping a younger female colleague. His wife Sophie doesn’t know who to believe, whereas the prosecuting barrister, Kate, who specialises in sexual assault cases, is determined to convict him. The story of James’s trial is interspersed with flashbacks to his Oxford days, where he got up to no good as a member of the Bullingdon Club (thinly disguised here as the Libertines). Is James guilty? And what happened during his time at Oxford that might come back to haunt him?
Anatomy of a Scandal is an enjoyable read, but I found it surprisingly unsatisfying. Firstly, the structure is awkward; there are five narrators and we’re introduced to each of them by a lengthy info-dump where they simply think about their life and choices for a long period of time. This is also used later in the novel when we haven’t seen one character’s perspective on events for a while, and it makes the characterisation very clunky, as well as slowing down the pace. Secondly, I actually guessed the central twist early in the novel, which is very unusual for me; I never guess twists. This wasn’t a big deal, but it did make me feel that it was a bit cliched. Thirdly, I think the book could have had more to say about the impact of rape and rape culture. Finally, the ending felt weak and rushed, and I would like to have heard a lot more about the aftermath of what happened. Most obviously, there are two central characters that I felt really ought to have met near the end of the novel. Given the proliferation of much better books on rape trials (Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard and Erin Kelly’s He Said/She Said spring to mind) this isn’t a memorable entry. And – although this obviously isn’t Vaughan’s fault – it already feels incredibly dated. We’re back in a comfortable and confident David Cameron administration where sex scandal is less significant than it was during John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ and there’s no hint of Brexit or Trump. This all feels off after the rise of #metoo and the growing political crisis engulfing the Tory party.
I received a free proof copy of Anatomy of A Scandal from the publisher for review.
I loved M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts, a SF novel set in an imagined dystopia, where huge population loss has decimated Britain and the few survivors hang on in military bases. When I first reviewed it, I was careful to avoid spoilers, but after the success of both the book and the film, it seems safe to say that it’s a zombie novel, although the zombies are known as ‘hungries’ and the mechanism through which the disease spreads as ‘the hungry plague’. This prequel picks up about twenty years earlier. A group of scientists and soldiers are travelling around England in ‘Rosie’, a huge tank-like contraption in which they live and work. Their mission is ostensibly to pick up abandoned research materials in hope that these might provide clues to finding a vaccination for the hungry plague, although it soon becomes clear that several of the team have their own agendas. Again, this sounds like a great set-up, but I found The Boy on the Bridge very disappointing in comparison to The Girl With All The Gifts. The narrative is fragmented between the team, and few of its members are given enough character development to feel like real people. The two that probably get the most page time are scientist Dr Khan and boy genius Stephen, the ‘boy on the bridge’ of the title. Unfortunately, I found both characters frustrating; there’s no emotional centre to this book. While The Girl With All The Gifts also used multiple narrators, Melanie, the ‘girl’, was so significant to the overall story that she held it all together, and the secondary cast are much stronger. I struggled to finish it, and can’t really recommend it.