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.
‘The Story Keeper’ has a very Gothic opening that seemed to me to be channelling the spirit of Wilkie Collins: a dark and stormy night, a woman travelling alone from London to a small village on a remote island arriving to be greeted only by a taciturn servant. The big house – the only big house for miles – seen for the first time at night – is cold and not welcoming. There’s an air of quiet menace, the suggestion of something dark but not spoken of.
At that point, I thought I knew where this was going – a Victorian ghost story modernised by having a lone woman as the main character and made more distinctive by being set on the Isle of Skye. The opening was well written and I was happy to settle down and wait for the ghostly disruptions to start.
But that wasn’t where the book went. This isn’t a Wilkie Collins pastiche. It’s more complicated than that. ‘The Story Keeper’ fashions its story by weaving together grim social history, island folklore, bleak landscapes, corrupt men and vulnerable women into a tale about young girls disappearing and discovering who or what is taking them.
It draws heavily on the history of Skye, displaying the social evils of the day: the extreme poverty of the islanders, made worse by mass evictions as part of the clearances; the callous indifference of landlords who see their tenants as barely human; the extinction of a culture that was seen as primitive, superstitious and in conflict with Christianity.
It uses well-told local folk stories to move the plot forward in surprising ways and to show that, for the local people, the folk stories are not pretty fairytales but warnings or fears confronted and contained. They are attempts at agency and a way of trying to become reconciled with their fate.
Two things turn ‘The Story Keeper’ into a thrilling, emotionally engaging story, rather than didactic historical fiction: the mystery of the missing girls and the strength of the women trying to find out what happened to them
The mystery of the missing girls is not just a puzzle, it’s a threat and a struggle. The mechanics of the mystery work well. It kept me guessing about what was going on without actively misleading me and the gothic elements are not just decoration, they’re an embodiment of the mindset that drives all the wrong-doing. From the beginning, there is a strong sense of threat, of abuse protected by secrets that soon starts to feel like a palpable evil, linked to the creatures in the folk tales.
There are three strong women at the heart of the story. They are all different in age, social position and motivation but they are all women who’ve taken damage and who expect little but refuse to just curl up and give in.
As a mystery, ‘The Story Keeper’ is entertaining but I think its power comes from what it has to say about stories themselves.
It’s a book of competing stories and clashing cultures. It tells of a world in which the powerful render the weak invisible either through self-serving entitled disregard or by a conscious effort to silence or erase them. The rich powerful white men in the book tell themselves one story about how the world works – they speak of economically rational choices, of replacing superstition with something more civilised and Christian and of facing the reality of necessary change. The crofters, who have been through famine and sickness and eviction and whose young face the choice of starvation or emigration, and who have no control over their own lives, tell another – they speak of fate and curses and malevolent spirits and what must be done or not done to appease them. The two sets of stories are told in two different languages. The worlds they describe barely overlap.
Behind the rich versus poor story is a more subtle one. One that is mostly told only in enforced silence or public denial. It’s the story of how men abuse women; of how corrupt men prey on vulnerable women and other men either look away or drown out complaints.
The ending was more hopeful than I had expected and might be seen as too neat but, after everything everyone, including the reader, had been put through, I was glad to see it.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘The Story Keeper’. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of Sarah Baron’s narration.
Anna Mazzola is an English writer of historical thrillers and Gothic fiction and a human rights and criminal justice solicitor, working with victims of crime. Her novels explore the impact of crime and injustice. She has published three novels The Unseeing (2016) set in London in 1837, The Story Keeper (2018) set on the Isle of Skye in 1857, and The Clockwork Girl (2022) set in Paris in 1759,. Her fourth novel The House of Whispers, is a ghost story set in Fascist Italy and will be published in April 2023.
I read ‘The Story Keeper’ for the Terror In A Small Town square in Halloween Bingo