Anna Mazzola captivated me with her tense and atmospheric, early Victorian London crime debut The Unseeing and I was keen to see where she went next. The period is once again Victorian for her second novel but, crucially, The Story Keeper* is set twenty years later for reasons which become apparent towards the end of the book. And for this book we escape London for the Hebrides together with her disillusioned young folklorist.
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.
The novel opens with an extract from a folk tale which runs throughout the novel, and follows that up with Audrey coming across to Skye on the boat. It’s a great way to start because it gives us a taste of the folklore she’ll be collecting, and ensures we see Audrey as an outsider. It also gives us a real sense of the journey she’s undertaken to get there, how badly she must have wanted to leave London behind, how hard that crossing was (important for those of us who’ve only ever known the road bridge), while introducing us to one of the young girls who plays a part in the sinister story about to unfold.
Thanks to Anna Mazzola’s excellent writing, I quickly became immersed in the book’s world, which isn’t always a comfortable place to be. The Story Keeper features gothic elements that exude menace and an impending sense of doom: birds circle and swoop; the draughty old house where Audrey is to stay has seen better days and comes complete with strange noises, a less than welcoming employer, and plenty of mysterious corners and passageways. Islanders are wary of strangers, understandably so given recent history and what’s happening on the island, and are reluctant and superstitious of telling the old stories.
Audrey has to distinguish what’s story from truth before she runs out of time or loses her mind in the attempt and because she wants to right a past wrong from the life she left behind. But it’s difficult to know who to trust here: no matter how charming, reticent or intimidating they outwardly appear, everyone seems an unwilling and unreliable narrator.
Anna Mazzola works the folkloric elements into her story well, showing how the islanders come to believe in these more strongly and firmly than other more rational explanations for the same phenomena, how deep-rooted superstition is and how it is all bound up in place. The historical story of her mother adds another layer to the folklorist aspect of the story and gives Audrey yet more reason to have found her way here. And it’s refreshing to see her working together with one of the young island girls, despite all the limitations imposed on them as young women and employees from different classes and backgrounds.
The Story Keeper is nuanced storytelling: evocative and atmospheric, gothic and chilling, blending the folklore of long-held belief and custom with something altogether more convenient and only too human. Highly recommended.
The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola is published by Tinder Press, a Headline imprint. It’s available as an audiobook and an ebook and in hardback from Thursday (26th July). You can find it at Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop), Waterstones or Wordery. To find out more about Anna Mazzola and her books, check out her Author Website or follow her on Twitter.
* The Story Keeper isn’t a sequel to The Unseeing: it’s a standalone novel with a new storyline.
My thanks to Anna and her publisher for sending me an early review copy.