The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

Folklore and gothic horror…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1857, and Audrey Hart has arrived on the Isle of Skye to assist an elderly lady, Miss Buchanan, to collect the old folktales before they are lost forever. The issue has become urgent because the Highland Clearances are underway, with landowners driving people out of their homes and crofts to make way for more profitable use of the land. With communities being broken, the old traditions are disappearing fast and with them the stories that have been passed down through the generations. But Audrey has another reason for going to Skye too – she spent some time there as a child with her beloved mother, who died on the island when Audrey was still very young. When young girls begin to go missing, the crofting folk believe it’s the work of the fairies. Suddenly Audrey finds herself caught up in a mystery full of folklore and gothic horror…

It took me a long time to get into this book, largely because I’m not an enthusiast for fairy and folk tales, and they play a big part in the story. Audrey is initially sceptical but seems very easily won over to the crofters beliefs, which made my inner cynic curl her lip and sneer a little, I’m afraid. However, the quality of the writing and storytelling kept me turning pages and gradually I found myself becoming absorbed. Audrey is torn – part of her is increasingly falling under the sway of the supernatural explanation, but her more rational side is still wondering if the reason for the girls’ disappearances might have more to do with humans than fairies.

Mazzola shows the cruelty of the Clearances well, although (and I could easily be wrong here) I felt her portrayal of the crofters as being still quite so steeped in superstition at this relatively late date might be a little anachronistic. It was as if they felt that everything that happened was down to the intervention of the fairy folk – no consideration was given to any other possible cause. The fairies here are of the evil kind and the folk stories tell of changelings and stolen children, and cruel punishments for those who don’t show proper respect to them.

Anna Mazzola

Anachronistic or not, though, Mazzola gradually builds up an excellent atmosphere of growing horror, and Audrey’s descent towards an insanity born of fear is very well done. There are lots of nice Gothic touches – a big old house with empty wings and rooms shrouded in dust-covers, strange noises and tunnels, dark nights and graveyards, and mysteriously threatening flocks of birds appearing at unexpected moments. The islanders are initially hostile towards Audrey, seeing her as connected to the landowners who are behaving so cruelly towards them. Since she has cut herself off from her family, Audrey finds herself isolated and alone, dependent on the goodwill of her employer. Mazzola uses this to show the still subordinate and precarious position of women without means of their own, and we gradually learn of the circumstances that have driven Audrey to leave the home that may not have offered her much in the way of love but at least gave her security from poverty.

By the time I got to the second half I was fully caught up in wanting to see how it would all be resolved. I had a pretty good idea of who were the goodies and baddies so the suspense really came from how it would be played out, and I found the ending quite satisfying. Considering all the folklore stuff isn’t really to my taste, Mazzola did an excellent job of gaining and keeping my interest and I’ll be interested to read more from her in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Tinder Press.

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41 thoughts on “The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola

  1. I know what you mean about not being much of a one for folklore and fairy tales, FictionFan. But the setting got my interest right away. And it does sound as though there’s more to this than superstition. And a well-written Gothic story can be as creepy and absorbing as anyone would want. This one stays on my radar, methinks.

    • Well worth reading – if it could get past my anti-folklore defences then it must be good! I though she handled the gothic aspects really well and got a nicely spooky atmosphere into it, while not relying on the supernatural to the point where it put me off.

  2. I don’t recall hearing of this one, but I think you’ve given it a balanced review, FF. While I know much fiction is at least loosely based on folktales, myths, and so forth, there’s a fine line between what’s interesting and captivating and what’s not. Glad this author was able to overcome your initial resistance and bring her work to a satisfying conclusion. And isn’t it nice to end the week on a positive note?!!

    • At least I knew what the book was about when I went in, but I’d heard so many good things about the author I decided to try it anyway. And the fact that she won me over in the end shows she must have talent! A good one. 😀

    • Thank you! 😀 I’d heard so many good things about her previous book I decided to take a chance on this one despite knowing she’d have to work hard to get me onside with the folklore. But she managed it! 😀

  3. I was having a hard time really picturing the setting of this novel, and in what ways specifically the fairy believers are separate from reality. Is it just the island that splits them? What did you think of the setting in this tale?

    Chasing down folk tales before they disappear sounds a lot like what Zora Neale Hurston did for a time when she returned to Florida or headed to Haiti or New Orleans to talk to hoo doo doctors, “real” zombies, the last surviving African slaves, and swamp folks.

    • There’s no doubt superstition lingered in these poorer, more remote communities, but I felt she just over-egged it a bit. But I did think she was very good at the ohysical descriptions of the island, and gave a good idea of the Highland Clearances.

      I also reviewed a book recently of Libyan and Syrian folktales that had been collected before they die away completely. These old stories can tell us so much about the people who told them.

  4. I enjoyed this book, so I’m pleased you did too, despite folk tales not being to your taste! I loved the setting and the eerie atmosphere. I’m not sure whether the portrayal of the crofters was anachronistic or not, but I kept being reminded of The Good People by Hannah Kent, where people in 19th century Ireland still believed in fairies as well.

    • I thought she created a great atmosphere of spookiness and the fact that she hooked me despite my resistance to folklore was pretty impressive! Yes, it reminded me of The Good People too, though I much preferred this one. But I could understand the people in The Good People being superstitious about a child with a strange ailment more than I could accept these people being so willing to put missing teenage girls down to the fairies quite so easily. But it was only a minor point – it didn’t spoil the book for me at all.

  5. Really all you had to say was Isle of Skye and the Highland Clearances. I’m so there. It’s already been on my list. Glad to know how you fared with it. I won’t mind the folk tales, etc.

    • Those aspects really appealed to me too and she did them very well, I thought. And the fact that she won me over despite my resistance to folklore was pretty impressive! Hope you enjoy it! 😀

  6. Hmm, I’m undecided. I love the idea of capturing the local stories before they were lost forever but the heroine believing in them leaves me wondering if she is too gullible for my tastes too. Maybe… if the book falls into my hands I’ll consider it is meant to be read by me.

  7. I’m glad you enjoyed it eventually. I loved it but then I grew up loving fairy stories, reading as many books that the library had as I could – fairy tales from all around the world. Like you I had a pretty good idea of who were the goodies and baddies too and it was satisfying to find I’d sussed it correctly – and I loved the setting!

    • I thought she did the setting really well, and that she could win me over despite my resistance to folklore is a testament to the quality of her writing! I loved the spookiness of the atmosphere she created…

  8. Gothic and the Highland setting had me convinced! I can’t remember where else I read a review of this but is does sound good. I’m glad the folklore element doesn’t see the story get carried away in supernatural whimsy. I don’t mind some, but not too much!

    • I think Cleo reviewed it, and Margaret. Yes, she keeps just this side of going overboard on the supernatural stuff, so that my inner rationalist didn’t revolt, though it was close in the early stages. 😉 But she did the Gothic atmosphere very well… I must try to get hold of her earlier book.

  9. I am intrigued! I love fairy stories, especially those populated by people who believe in fairies (and even those who claim they believe, but really don’t and use fairies as an excuse to commit crimes).

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