The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola – layers of atmosphere, stories and fear

This is a book with so many layers. A historical novel full of the atmosphere and truth of another age, yet offering a subtle commentary on the treatment of girls, of women. A mystery novel, but with far more than the solving of a death. The tale of a young woman in search of a better way than marriage or keeping silent about wrongdoing. A story of a group of people losing everything they value. The front of the book states “First the land was taken. Then the stories. Then the girls”. This is a novel of fear, of layers of confusion. A painful book, but a tribute to the human spirit, even when that is expressed in unconventional ways. This is a book of landscape, of a powerful understanding of life on the edge, of communities of fear. The power of the writing should be self evident; this book boarders on Gothic horror which has effectively terrified so many over generations. I was taken aback by much of this book, and I am grateful to be given the opportunity to read a copy for review on a blog tour.

The book opens as Audrey, a young woman, is sailing to the Isle of Skye. It is September 1857, and already the weather and the birds, are signalling the coming of winter. Audrey is running away, moving from her father’s home in London and the life of a relatively well off young woman, already tired of her stepmother’s attempts to marry her to a suitable man. As Audrey helps an obviously unwell girl, it begins to emerge that she cares deeply for such poor girls, quietly indignant at their treatment and the treatment they receive at the hands of more powerful men. She is going to seek employment and independence, having followed an advertisement for a folklorist, someone to assist in the collecting and ordering of tales of the people, the folk tales that have emerged and developed over generations. To some on the island these are nothing more than complex superstitions, growing as a result of the unique weather and natural life of the islands. As Audrey encounters the mysterious Miss Buchanan and the mysterious house to which she is confined, she realises that she must explore the island, meet its people on a level in which they feel confident to talk with her, and deal with those who want to rationalise the use of the land. She is shown and told of the suffering which the effective clearances are causing; displaced and desperate, they either scratch for survival or are exiled to countries from which they will never return. The chance discovery of a body means that the stakes are raised to an unbearable level, as the stories are not just to be collected, but feared, as the weather, birds and land all seems to wrench at ancient and more recent secrets.

It is difficult to capture the successful way in which Mazzola creates the sense of a world, both threatening and disappearing as Audrey strives to understand what is happening around her. The offstage threat of London, her own earliest memories, and the almost supernatural fear which pervades this book makes it a truly compelling read. An absorbing tale, I found this a gripping story which was subtly brutal, yet never needlessly violent. This is a book which works on so many levels, and I thoroughly recommend it as a fascinating novel.

So another blog post about a book which I believe turns paperback soon – it is certainly worth finding! Meanwhile I have a mini break from blog tours while I catch up with more books that are begging to be reviewed. I have been acquiring some lovely books in an independent bookshop today – hurray!