The Story Keeper, by Anna Mazzola, is set on the Isle of Skye in 1857. This setting is key. The Highland Clearances of the time were forcing many to emigrate, robbing the indigenous families of their tenancies, livelihoods and culture. The mass displacement and suffering inflicted created an undercurrent of bitterness against distant landowners, the legacy of which is still felt by many today.
Into this simmering tumult of wealth driven cruelty arrives a young woman, Audrey Hart, who wishes to take up an advertised position as assistant to a lady folklorist, Charlotte Buchanon, the sister of a local laird. The Buchanon’s are disliked for their vicious treatment of the tenants they disdain.
“these people have limited intelligence. How else do you account for the continuing belief in the mystical and for their failure to improve their living standards? They are culturally, and in every other sense, backward.”
“They have no urge to self-improvement, none of what we might call enterprise. They would live in their squalid little huts raking over their famished earth until there is no life left in the land whatsoever.”
Audrey has grown up with a fascination for mystical stories, folklore passed on from her late mother. Audrey remembers happy family holidays on Skye but also a great sadness as it was here that her mother fell to her death. Following this tragedy her father remarried and relocated to London, placing his family within a rarefied society that has always felt alien to his daughter. In trying to push her to find suitable pursuits for an unmarried lady, after she failed to secure a husband, he placed her in what became an untenable situation. Unwilling to accept her version of events he drove her to desperate measures. Audrey seeks independence, a challenge in the societal structures of the day.
Following an accident Miss Buchanon is confined to her family’s decaying mansion so requires an assistant to travel the local crofts for her collecting tenants’ stories before they are lost forever. As an outsider Audrey struggles to gain the trust of the people until she finds the body of a young girl washed up on the shore below her room in the mansion where she is staying. She is invited to attend a ceilidh, but for their hospitality the people ask something in return.
Audrey befriends one of the Buchanon’s servants and is permitted to take the girl along to assist in her story collection. The more dark tales she hears the further she is drawn into their portents and fearful superstitions. When more girls go missing, accompanied by flights of dark bird-like creatures, Audrey starts to sicken. Unable to return to London, from whence threats are emanating, she pushes on with the tasks Miss Buchanon impatiently sets.
Audrey’s preconceived notions and susceptibility to suggestion causes her to miss clues plain to the reader. This does not, however, detract from the enjoyment of a tale that has layers and depth. Apparent weaknesses in her come to be explained. A lucky escape demonstrates the extent of the risks women ran when they tried to be heard by men. It is sobering to reflect on the patriarchical power and complicity, the ease with which they dismissed any view that did not bolster their privilege.
The local minister frowns on Miss Buchanon’s endeavours believing such notions should be replaced by adherence to the beliefs he preaches. The laird expresses his view that folklore is harmless, although could be made more useful by reshaping to impart a moral lesson. These men retain control by whatever means necessary – of family, locals, foreigners in lands invaded.
“Audrey imitated a smile. Of course women should not be exposed to such things. Their delicate constitutions could not withstand it. Except that she had already read of the Cawnpore massacre. Women and children butchered; bloody handprints on walls; the dying thrown into a well. The darkest fairy tale of all.”
The denouement held few surprises, other than the final twist which I had not guessed. The insidious danger Audrey faced offers a better understanding of why women could not risk complaining too loudly about their treatment.
The folk tales offer a chilling backdrop alongside the lessons from history that resonate in the political climate of today. A story of mystery and suspense that I enjoyed for the place and period insights.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.