Tinder Press | 2018, Pb 2019 | 342p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1857 and Audrey Hart has left her father’s house in London to return to the place of her birth, the Isle of Skye in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Audrey has a deep fascination for this beautiful and remote place, it calls to her and it feels like home. She has found the perfect position. She will assist Miss Buchanan, the sister of Lord Buchanan, the lord of the manor, in her project to gather together the island’s folklore. Miss Buchanan isn’t able to travel around Skye herself and so that will be Audrey’s job – she must win the confidence of the islanders so that they will share with her their stories. It won’t be easy because some of these stories are as brutal and cruel as the conditions in which these near-destitute islanders live. For this is the time of the Clearances, when whole communities were cast out by their landowners. Many left for Canada but those who remain are barely hanging on.
When Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach, it is the start of a nightmare as the crofters reveal that it has happened before. Audrey is determined to discover the truth about the fate of these young women who, the islanders insist, were carried off by spirits in the guise of birds. And Audrey finds it increasingly hard to shake of the shadow of her past.
Anna Mazzola is such a fine writer, gifted in bringing the awful darkness that underpinned so much of 19th-century society into the light. In the marvellous The Unseeing, the author’s attention was on London during the 1830s, especially the hellhole that was Newgate Prison, and the unkind fate that poor women in particular could face. In The Story Keeper we are taken to the Scottish islands and an entirely different type of landscape, one that is relatively empty (or has been emptied), where life is influenced by the elements, by the surrounding stormy seas, by the dramatic scenery – and by the spirits that are believed to inhabit them. It isn’t surprising that folklore should play such a significant role in such a place and Anna Mazzola weaves these stories and themes through her Gothic tale.
It’s a compelling story and Audrey is at its heart. She occupies a strange position. She is both an insider (as she spent her childhood on Skye) but to most she is an outsider, a foreigner, an English person. Audrey bridges two worlds and so she is well placed to comment on both. The other characters are perceived as she sees them. Many fascinate her while some frighten her and others elude her. But so many have stories to tell about their lives and island.
Skye is described so vividly. The beauty of it contrasts with its bleakness. Audrey spends much of her time walking great distances over such rough ground. The reader might almost be there with her. But we can be under no false pretences – the life these islanders face is hard and unjust. We are made to understand the cruelty of the Clearances. We also witness cruelty by the crofters as they seek to appease the spirits, sometimes in the worst of ways.
But there are other injustices here, too, and not all of them on Skye. As Audrey’s past catches up with her we learn something of what it must have been like for a woman such as Audrey in this judgemental, oppressive and predatory male society.
I love Gothic reads, especially at this time of year, and The Story Keeper is perfect. It’s moody and creepy, steeped in atmosphere and dark mysteries. And yet reality is shown to be every bit as menacing and sinister on Skye as the fairies, demons and bird spirits that torment and tease its people.