The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

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!

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

the-unseeingIt’s Christmas 1836 and Hannah Brown is looking forward to her wedding to James Greenacre. However, the marriage will never take place; instead, Hannah is brutally murdered and in the weeks that follow, the parts of her dismembered body are discovered in various locations around London. Her fiancé, Greenacre, is arrested and found guilty – but although he admits to disposing of the body, he claims that Hannah was already dead when he found her. This makes no difference to the judge and jury and Greenacre is sentenced to hang, along with his mistress, Sarah Gale, who is accused of concealing the murder.

Sarah had been living with Greenacre as his housekeeper before being asked to leave so he could marry Hannah. She insists that she knew nothing about the murder and Greenacre also denies that she had any involvement, but this is not enough to save her. As she sits in a cell in Newgate Prison, Sarah’s only hope is the petition she has submitted asking for clemency. The lawyer appointed by the Home Secretary to look again at Sarah’s case is Edmund Fleetwood, young, idealistic and principled. After speaking to Sarah and hearing her talk about her life, Edmund is convinced that she should be freed, but how can he prove it? And is it possible that he is becoming too emotionally involved in the case to be able to see the facts clearly?

Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on a true crime; the Edgware Road Murder, as it became known, really did take place and James Greenacre really was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Sarah Gale was also arrested, but I won’t tell you what her eventual fate would be. I didn’t know and that meant I was kept in suspense wondering what would happen to her. It’s important to remember, though, that this is fiction and not everything in the book is taken from historical fact – which could explain why some of the developments towards the end of the novel didn’t completely convince me.

Edmund Fleetwood, who plays such a major role in the novel, is a fictional character and the author has created a fictional story for him running alongside Sarah’s. I thought the two stories worked well together – I did like Edmund and I shared his frustration as Sarah repeatedly refused to provide any information which could have helped her defence – but there were times when I felt I was being distracted from the central plot and I just wanted to get back to Sarah in the Newgate. The portrayal of prison life is one of the novel’s strong points and reminded me of other prison-based historical novels such as Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.

The most interesting aspect of the book, though, is the exploration of what it meant to be a woman accused of a crime in the 19th century: the unfairness of the law, the way in which evidence against a woman was considered, the possible bias that could arise from a verdict being reached by an all-male jury, and whether the punishments handed out were in proportion to the crime. The fact that many of these women had children – like Sarah’s little boy, George – added another complication. Sarah is lucky enough to have a sister, Rosina, who takes care of George while she is in prison, but what will happen to him if the worst happens and she can never come home?

The Unseeing is an interesting blend of fact and fiction; I did enjoy it, but I felt that there wasn’t enough to make this book stand out from others of its type. I couldn’t quite love it, but I liked it and will be looking out for more from Anna Mazzola.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a review copy via NetGalley.