This is Anna Mazzola’s second novel, following her debut, The Unseeing, which I read last year. There are some similarities between the two – they are both set in the 19th century and they are both inspired by true crimes – but the stories are very different and, of the two, I found this new one much more enjoyable.
It’s 1857 and Audrey Hart is desperate to get away from London following a traumatic experience at the orphanage where she has been volunteering. Audrey’s mother, who disappeared while out walking many years earlier, had an interest in folklore, so when Audrey sees a job advertised for a collector of folk tales on the Isle of Skye, she applies at once. After arriving on the island and meeting her new employer, Miss Buchanan, she becomes aware that her task is going to be much more difficult than she had expected…
During the recent Highland Clearances, many of the crofters have been forced to leave Skye, taking their stories with them, and those who remain are reluctant to speak to Audrey. Some of this reluctance could simply be due to the fact that Audrey is from England and therefore an outsider, but she senses that there is more to it than that – the islanders seem to be afraid to share their stories and to have them written down. Then Audrey finds the body of a girl washed up on the beach – and when another girl also goes missing, she begins to wonder whether the people of Skye are right to be afraid.
The Story Keeper is a wonderfully atmospheric novel set in a small, remote Scottish community where people’s daily lives are influenced by the old superstitions and traditions in which they still believe. Throughout the novel, as one strange occurrence follows another, we are kept wondering whether there are supernatural forces at work on Skye or whether there is another explanation for what is happening. It all feels quite sinister, and genuinely eerie in places. Some of the superstitions and beliefs Audrey encounters are dark, disturbing and even dangerous. The novel reminded me in that respect of The Good People by Hannah Kent.
As well as the mystery unfolding on the Isle of Skye, there are also hints of other mysteries in Audrey’s past. Why did she leave her home in London without telling her father and stepmother where she was going? What really happened while she was visiting the orphanage? And what was the true story behind her mother’s disappearance, all those years ago? These things are all explained, but the truth only emerges very slowly, meaning that there is plenty of suspense from the beginning of the book until the end.
If I have a criticism, it is that some of the developments towards the end of the book, especially where one particular character is concerned, feel a bit too dramatic and far-fetched. I liked the final twist, though, as it was something I hadn’t worked out for myself. I also enjoyed the fairy tale extracts at the start of some of the chapters and the lines from the poem Kilmeny by James Hogg, which I had to look up and read in its entirety after finishing the book.
Although I couldn’t help thinking The Story Keeper would have been better suited to a cold, dark winter’s night, I still enjoyed reading it during our current summer heatwave and I’m looking forward to whatever Anna Mazzola writes next.
Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.
This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer. I am doing slightly better with this than it seems – I just need to catch up with writing my reviews!