First the land was taken. Then the stories. Then the girls. This is the chain of events that greets Audrey Hart when she arrives on the Isle of Skye to collect word-of-mouth folklore from the local island community. It’s 1857 and the forced eviction of inhabitants of the Highlands has left the crofters destitute, angry and suspicious of outsiders. They fear their stories are being lost, forgotten and distorted, made worse by the young girls who keep mysteriously disappearing.
Audrey is running away from her own troubles in London; an unyielding father who thinks a woman’s place is by a husband’s side, and a potential scandal involving a well-respected man caught abusing his power. Despite the crofters’ unrest and unease, Audrey feels at home on Skye; it brings her closer to her folklorist mother, who would take her to the island when she was young and recount the stories of old. Audrey hopes that in collecting folk tales for the reclusive Mrs Buchanan, she might unearth the one story she’s never truthfully been told: that of her mother’s death.
Drawn into the disappearances, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, despite the protestations of the local police and the minister who condemn the crofters’ fables. With the help of a local servant girl, Audrey visits the traditional communities in a bid to separate fact from fiction. The crofters believe the girls are victims of the spirits of the unforgiven dead, but the more she hears, the more Audrey is able to link the missing girls to a much more human figure.
“Every group of people have their own stories that they create to make sense of their world. Therefore, in folk stories, in fairy tales, we see the reflection of humankind: its strength, flaws, hopes, fears. They tell us what it takes to survive.”
Inspired by a real life case of disappearing girls, The Story Keeper is an evocatively written period mystery novel, interweaving evocative folk tales and suffusing each chapter with a sense of tradition and whimsy. Anna Mazzola creates a gothic atmosphere that, like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, is at once beautiful and ominous. When it rains, you feel the damp and cold seeping into your bones. When a crofter tells one of their tales and superstitions, you believe every word. It could all be fantasy but it could just as easily be reality, and that’s what makes each page so compelling.
Mazzola paints a dark and foreboding picture of Victorian society – specifically what it was like for intellectual women, suppressed by their male counterparts – and the desolation caused by the Highland Clearances, lending the book a real sense of authenticity. The island of Skye is as much a character as Audrey, both of them endearing, multi-layered and given ample time to breathe as the story plays out.
Bleak at points, beautiful at others, The Story Keeper is a chilling and atmospheric novel about the power of stories and survival. Best enjoyed on a dark night, next to a roaring fire with a steaming cup of cocoa in hand.
The Story Keeper is published by Tinder Press on 26 July 2018