Anna Mazzola- The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857 and the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and a community riven by fear. The crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories. Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead: spirits who take the form of birds. Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but as events accumulate she begins to wonder if something else is at work. Something which may be linked to the death of her own mother, many years before…

Having thoroughly enjoyed Anna Mazzola’s debut, The Unseeing based on an historical murder case, I was more than intrigued to see what would come next from the author. Suffice to say that this glorious mix of the gothic and the folkloric more than hit the spot…

Once again, the breadth of Mazzola’s historical research is clearly in evidence again, using the backdrop of 19th century Skye to weave this dark and mysterious tale. Melding together the utter poverty wrought by the infamous land clearances of the period, the chasm between rich and poor, and the superstitious belief in folklore, Mazzola paints a vivid picture of the period which has a vivid clarity, and transports the reader effortlessly to this moment in time. I absolutely loved the rendering of the folkloric tales, that Audrey is employed to collect and catalogue, and the natural compulsion displayed by the crofting community to withhold these tales from prying outsiders, leading Audrey to chip away at this reluctance to satisfy her strange and eccentric employer Miss Buchanan. Equally, the interweaving of Gaelic history, and the reduced livelihoods of the local inhabitants adds further colour and context to the story, but there is an even more vital strand to this book concerning Audrey herself.

Audrey has fled from London unchaperoned to take up this position, causing us instantly to wonder at the reasons for such ‘unladylike’ behaviour, and here a very important story arc is revealed. Mazzola uses Audrey’s story, and that of other young women she encounters in Skye, to really cut to the grist of the position of women in this period in society. Without giving too much away, the patriarchal, male oriented society is very much the catalyst for her escape, and her story is poignant and thought provoking, allowing Mazzola to explore the extreme emotional and financial hardship that Audrey and other women experience, and the abuses and indignities they suffer. I found this theme in the book very emotive, and with a modern sensibility felt a righteous anger on their behalf. As the abuses in the local community come to light, Audrey is compelled to intervene and defend the right of these women for justice, placing herself in extreme danger too, and as the sense of peril builds, with a beautifully weighted feel of gothic suspense, there are some extremely dark misdemeanours to reveal.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Story Keeper, and as each layer of the story was peeled back, and different facets of the everyday existence of this community was brought to light there was an enhanced level of interest throughout the book. With it’s curious mix of the ordinary, the strange, the gap between rich and poor, mental illness, and the inherent danger to, and tacit subservience of women in this period, I was held in a state of fascination from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

(With thanks to Tinder Press to the ARC)