I loved Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, and was thrilled to receive an early copy of The Story Keeper to read ahead of its publication in July.
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.
Audrey is 24 when she leaves London, heading to the Isle of Skye without her father’s knowledge. Her early childhood was a happy one, and her love of folklore was instilled in her by her mother who came from Scotland, and where Audrey and her family lived in her early years. Audrey’s mother died when she was 10 in circumstances that Audrey isn’t fully aware of – one of the many puzzles to be revealed in this novel – and at 12 her father remarried a woman of 19. Moving to London, her stepmother does her best to make Audrey marriageable, however unpalatable that is to Audrey herself. That said, Dorothea isn’t quite the wicked stepmother that you might find in a novel that has so much to do with folklore and fairy tales, and whilst she is a minor character, she is also an important one.
I thought that Audrey was a great character, and one who is before her time in her desire to seek intellectual pursuits that weren’t always deemed suitable for young ladies at the time. She’s a conflicted character and comes across as being socially inept and awkward around others. This isn’t all that surprising however, when you consider that she has received conflicting instructions from those around her, with her mother telling her to be herself and to stay true to what she feels is right, whilst her father and stepmother try to mould her into something more palatable to London society. Her loyalty to her mother wins out, however, as she finds the niceties of society extremely dull, and continues to pursue her own interests, much to her father’s chagrin.
There are multiple threads to The Story Keeper, all of which is told from Audrey’s perspective, so the reader only knows as much as she does. There are hints at a situation in London that was part of her desire to move away. Predictably, it has to do with a man, and as this part of the story becomes clear to the reader, I admired her determination to stand up for what’s right, and this attitude stands her in good stead for her experiences on the Isle of Skye.
On Skye, Audrey initially struggles to connect with the locals, despite her own Scottish heritage, she is deemed “too English” to understand their struggles, their lives, and their stories. They open up to her when she discovers the body of a young girl washed up in the bay, however, and she soon learns that other girls have gone missing. The authorities are not interested, however, and deem them runaways and girls of a dubious nature that aren’t worth the time or effort to investigate their fates. The Story Keeper is a novel that perfectly captures the attitudes of the time, with many men – not all – being largely dismissive of women as fragile, unintelligent creatures who worry too much and have overactive imaginations. The women, unsurprisingly, are rather contemptuous of this attitude.
I love folklore, myth and fairy tales, and I loved the way in which Mazzola brought these to life in The Story Keeper. It’s easy to dismiss them as flights of fancy, but Mazzola captures the essence of the stories, and the way that they were used to make sense of the world at the time. Audrey’s role is to capture and document these stories, as it’s so easy for such stories, traditionally told by word of mouth, to become lost, as the church seeks dominion and dismisses the old tales as worthless, dangerous stories to frighten children and to distract from their teachings. Added to this is the eviction of tenants by the landowners, which forced many families to emigrate, taking their stories with them to new lands where they may or may not be handed down to their children who may be exposed to alternative tales and beliefs that contrast with their own.
I absolutely loved The Story Keeper, and I thought that it was a brilliantly researched novel with much more going on that I expected when I started reading it. It reminded me a little of The Essex Serpent, with a dash of Hannah Kent’s The Good People thrown in, and I highly recommend it.
The Story Keeper will be published on 26 July by Tinder Press. Many thanks to Becky Hunter for the opportunity to read and review this title ahead of its publication.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐