published 2018, set in 1857
She saw seated at a table a woman in a green dress, with perfectly white hair gathered back into a high chignon. She looked up as they approached, but she did not smile. Her eyes were glass-blue.
There must have been a hundred people there -men, women and children who had walked … to attend the Sunday service at the church at Broadford… dressed in dark blue homespun dresses and jackets, the occasional flash of colour in a bright handkerchief or scarlet shawl.
commentary: I may have mentioned (once or twice) that earlier this year a book I contributed to was nominated for an Edgar award, and that I went to New York for the ceremony. (TL:DR take – we didn’t win but I had the best time ever). Oh I have mentioned it before? Anyway, this is a different take on it.
At the reception before the ceremony I was talking to an American publisher, whose British author Anna Mazzola had been nominated in a different category: her book, The Unseeing, won the paperback original award. Anna couldn’t be there, but obviously I was cheering her on and was delighted when she won. And then I read that book, which was an excellent atmospheric story about an incomprehensible crime in London in the 1830s - it’s described as a ‘twisting tale of family secrets’, which is an excellent tagline. I enjoyed it hugely, and then moved on to this one, which is just out.
And The Story Keeper is even better. Audrey Hart, whose family background is unhappy, takes a job on the Scottish island of Skye, near where her dead mother came from, and a place she visited as a child. She is taken on by one of the local gentry – a woman who lives in a big house – to collect traditional folklore: songs and stories. She lives in the house, gets to know people locally, and realizes that young women are disappearing – and that no-one is taking it very seriously.
The setting is the time of the Highland Clearances, and the horrors of that time are not underplayed. The superstitions and local tales are seen as a valuable resource to be saved (especially as families are being forced overseas), but there are two sides to that: the local minister says
‘the whole thing is madness. Pure havers. This is exactly why I’ve been warning folk against the old beliefs: they’re not just wrong, they’re dangerous. They’ve near killed the poor lass and for what? For their wretched fairies?’He is shown as having bigoted views and ruling his flock unreasonably, but at this particular moment in the book, he does have a point.
The Story Keeper is very atmospheric, and very tense: the final section is unputdownable. It is very well-written, and Audrey is a great heroine – intelligent and brave and real, with a compelling sadness about her: she wants more from life than seems on offer for a woman in her position.
The history and the details of the folklore seem impeccable (I mean, I wouldn’t know, but they have the ring of truth) and are fascinating, and then the Gothic thriller plot is excellent. The book reminded me of the early Sarah Waters book Affinity – very much a compliment in my eyes, I think it’s Waters’ best book.
I have high hopes that Anna Mazzola is just at the start of a long career of writing great books of the kind we're all looking for - books that are entertaining and well-written, contain interesting ideas, and don't insult your intelligence.
The pictures are from some 30 years later, which is a bit of a cheat, but I found a book online at the British Library about a cycling tour of Scotland (including Skye) – a humorous recital, just pre-dating Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat but perhaps similar – and the pictures seemed to fit various scenes in The Story Keeper.