The Story Keeper

Written by Anna Mazzola

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Story Keeper
Tinder Press
RRP: £18.99 / £9.49
Released: July 26, 2017
Hbk & ebook

This novel is a reminder that Britain has more than slavery as a blot on her escutcheon, although perhaps that too, for one folk memory of the Clearances on the Isle of Skye is that some of the evicted crofters were sent as slaves to American plantations.

Authentication is immaterial in the context for The Story Keeper is concerned with folklore and, even beyond the island’s recent bloody history, the folk memory is dark. Older tales involve girls stolen by the fairies, never to be seen again. There’s a lot of sex around and it makes a neat design that the educated people obsessed by the subject are an aged spinster, the collector of such tales, and her assistant, Audrey Hart, a young woman with a suspect past who is haunted by an unpleasant experience while befriending vulnerable children at a London orphanage.

The theme of exploitation permeates this book. Already, at the start, Audrey has encountered a sick and tattered waif on the Skye ferry, one shunned by the other passengers. At the big house which is her destination the unhappy servants give her only a grudging welcome. There is the traditional air of gloom; the local men dour and domineering: the glowering factor, the doctor, the minister, and all ill-mannered but particularly towards the English visitor.

Miss Buchanan, Audrey’s employer, is as unsympathetic as the rest: clever, autocratic, cheese-paring. Conversely her nephew is a charmer, his looks and fey intelligence suggesting he is to provide the love interest. For this is a confusion of romance and the Brothers Grimm, with a deep and powerful undercurrent that can accommodate not only Freud but those recent horrors that smacked of genocide when the land was cleared for sheep and deer.

Seen through a Londoner’s eyes there are sinister portents. Crows flock, there are murmurations of starlings; violence is threatened. The waif from the ferry is the first casualty, her bruised body washed up on the rocks below the mansion. Audrey now turns investigator on the strength not only of the bruising but the girl’s being pregnant. The doctor signs the certificate citing drowning as the cause of death, and the minister connives as a witness. Under cover of collecting ancient stories Audrey discovers that, prior to her arrival, several girls have vanished mysteriously.

One of them, missing for weeks, returns, mute and terrified, suffering from typhus. The omens proliferate horribly. An impaled death’s head moth comes to life, screaming. Cattle, perhaps people, are buried alive. Everyone seems to be mad, or is going mad

The climax should have been expected although there is a neat twist. Otherwise it’s been a case book scenario, or several of them, conducted on an island which is hardly the Skye one knows and loves, but carrying some whiff of magic because one reads to the inevitable end.

Not gripping but interesting.

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