The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola (Tinder Press)
Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect folk tales from the island community – a community which has for the most part been devastated by emigration and the Highland Clearances. It is no wonder the crofters are suspicious of an outsider – even one who can speak a little Gaelic, and who’s mother was Scottish. Audrey is there to work for Miss Charlotte Buchanan, a noted folklorist who never seems to leave Lanerly House and has an overbearing brother at whose whim she’s allowed to live there. Her nephew Alec – a writer of fairy stories – lives with her, along with the staff; brooding Murdo MacLean, Mairi the kitchen girl, and Effy, maid of all work. Everyone in the house appears to have a story, a secret. Audrey is no exception.
Collecting folklore, folk music and traditions was a pastime of the more well to do in Victorian society; Miss Buchanan, Audrey – and Audrey’s dead mother, who haunts this book as a silent participant – are part of this world. I imagine it was a bohemian and rule breaking (women! speaking to common folk, outdoors, alone…?) that the people the songs and stories were being collected from didn’t have any experience of.
Anna Mazzola writes the discomfort of these two social spheres bumping up against each other very well; the suspicion and hostility from some of the locals towards Audrey is palpable. Audrey – for all her Scottish credentials, her previous visits to Skye, and her Gaelic – only really finds a way into the local community with help from servant girl Effy. Effy herself eventually become part of this strange story.
It is not simply distrust of an outsider which has people on edge – girls have been disappearing, and superstition is coming to the fore to explain these disappearances. The crofters say the girls have been taken by the faeries, and faeries are not always kind. The story of Audrey’s investigation into these events is interspersed with a tale about Bainne and her sister (stolen away by a faery), as well as the poem Kilmeny by James Hogg. This leafing together of three stories is a brilliant device – I, like Audrey, often felt wrong-footed…as if there was an answer almost near enough to grasp, but which always eluded me.
Audrey, despite having only recently arrived, appears to be somehow at the centre of events. She begins to wonder of the tales are true, or if she is very ill, or going mad. Audrey is under some stress, she has some dangerous secrets herself – is someone trying to keep her quiet? She holds no position of power or influence, but is a hugely determined young woman – travelling to Skye alone in the mid 19th Century would be no small undertaking! Audrey decides she will find out what has happened to the disappeared girls – she takes great risks in doing so. In a novel filled with all manner of dark touches, the novel culminates in a thrillingly gothic way.
I loved the descriptions of the landscape of Skye. I have visited friends who recently moved to Sleat, so it was lovely to get a map out to join Audrey on her journeys round the island to places I’d also visited. Skye feels remote even now, with its bridge to the mainland – it must have felt even more so almost 170 years ago.
I really enjoyed The Story Keeper – there is just so much going on! Anna Mazzola manages to cover the hypocrisy of Victorian society (the huge gap between the wealthy and the poor, the dreadful events of the Clearances, and the supression of women and girls in society) while simultaneously embroiling the reader in a number of mysteries without losing any pace at all – I found this novel a really gripping read to the very end.
Find out more about Anna Mazzola and her writing at her website: https://annamazzola.com/ (I am completely on board for “peculiar and dark historical subjects” so will be getting hold of “The Unseeing” as soon as I can).
In the background of the photo up there is the Readers Digest Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, which no self respecteding folklore-lover should be without. This is one without the photo-bombing cat…
The Story Keeper was published by Tinder Press in January 2019. Thanks to them for providing a review copy via NetGalley.