The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola (2018)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction, spun around historical fact, set in the 19th century.

When Audrey Hart reads an advertisement for a collector of folk tales on the Isle of Skye she can’t help feeling that it was meant for her.

She had a difficult relationship with her father and her step-mother; she was in an awkward situation at the orphanage where she had been volunteering. Her mother, who had a particular interest in folklore, had disappeared, had been presumed to have had an accident, while out walking on Skye many years earlier.

It was hardly surprising that Audrey felt the pull of the distant island that she had visited as a very small child.

She won the job, but when she arrived on the island and met her new employer, Miss Buchanan, she came to realise that her work would be rather more difficult than she had expected. The Highland Clearances had forced many crofters to leave Skye, and and the few who remained were adamant that they would not repeat the old stories to her

35276769That might have been because Audrey was an outsider from England; it might have been because they were obedient to the wishes of their minister, who was stern and strict and who preached fire and brimstone; but Audrey was sure that there were other, more sinister, reasons. The islanders seemed to be fearful of the consequences of having the tales that they could tell written down.

Then Audrey finds the body of a girl who had been missing washed up on the beach, when she learns that she is not the first girl who went missing on the island,  she begins to realise that something is very wrong on the isle of Skye and in all probability that was what made the islanders fearful.

Her instinct was to act and to ask questions, but she didn’t know who she could trust, she didn’t know where she was safe, and she began to wonder if her new job was turning into a terrible trap …

Audrey drew me into the story. I liked her, I empathised with her situation, and as the story progressed I came to share her hopes and fears and understand what she wanted to do and what she wanted to find out. I didn’t always agree – and there were times when I worried about her and feared for her – but I did understand.

I appreciated that she was bright, she was curious, but there was only so much that she could do; because she was a woman of her time.

There were mysteries in Audrey’s past, and as the story moved forward I would learn why she had been so anxious to leave her her father’s and stepmother’s home, why she things had gone wrong at the orphanage, and even what had happened to her mother, all those years ago.

The story was well constructed, the pace was well judged, and once Audrey had drawn me there was a great deal to hold me there. Her world lived and breathed. I could hear the sea as she did, I shivered in the damp misty weather alongside her, and I I knew exactly how she felt as she ventured into new houses and across harsh and unfamiliar countryside. I appreciated the understanding of the history of the island and the way of life of the islanders; the writing was lovely and the descriptive prose, the pictures that the author painted, were wonderful.

I was disappointed that the end was a little too dramatic; but it held my attention because very final revelation came at the end of the book,  it took me by surprise, and that the resolution of the story was satisfying.

I appreciated that this second novel sits well alongside its predecessor; and that it has exactly the right mix of things in common and things that make it different and distinctive. That said, I do think that the stronger colours of that first book suited Anna Mazzola rather better than the more muted tones of this one.

I found much to love though, and I am very interested to find out what the third novel will hold.

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola (2016)

‘The Unseeing’ is fiction spun around historical fact.

Hannah Brown was brutally murdered on the eve of her wedding, in 1937, and parts of her dismembered body were found in different sites around London.  James Greenacre, the man she would have married, was arrested. At first he denied all knowledge of what had happened, but he would change his story. He would claim Hannah’s death had been an accident and that he had paniced and disposed of her body because he knew that suspicion was likely to fall on him,  because he had fallen foul of the law before..

27245142.jpgSarah Gale was tried as an accessory and, after offering no defence, she was convicted. She had a child but no husband, and she had lived with Greenacre as his ‘housekeeper’ until he had taken up with Hannah Brown, who he believed to be alone in the world with independent means.

After Hannah’s disappearance, Sarah returned to Greenacre’s household and was seen to be attempting to pawn Hannah’s belongings, and wearing her clothes.

Greenacre was found guilty and he hanged, but, after a petition for mercy, Sarah Gale’s sentence was commuted to transportation. She and her son were sent to Australia, and no more of her story is known.

Anna Mazzola’s story considers some of the unanswered questions about Sarah Gale.

Why was she granted a petition?

What did she know about the death of Hannah Brown? What did she do?

Why did she offer no defence?

Edmund Fleetwood is a fictional character. He is a young lawyer, and he is delighted to receive a first commission from the Home Secretary. He must investigate whether there are grounds to give Sarah Gale a pardon. Because the evidence against her is circumstantial; because she is the mother of a young child; because Elizabeth Fry has taken up her cause; because she has the support of the general public ….

The lawyer visits James Greenacre before his execution. He speaks with Sarah’s sister, who is looking after her child and is terrible worried. And he visits Sarah herself, who is willing to talk to him but unwilling to answer the questions that he needs answered.  Edmund is inclined to believe her, but the question of whether or not she is telling the truth, of whether the image she presents to him is real or a construct, is always looming. The answer to that question is always in doubt,  and carefully timed revelations made considering that question fascinating.

Anna Mazzola’s writing has many strengths.

Her descriptions are wonderfully vivid, evoking the terrible atmosphere of Newgate prison.  She allows her characters to speak, quite naturally, of the way the law is weighted against women and against the poor. I believed in all of those characters; and in everything that was said and done in that prison.

She constructed a compelling story that worked with the real, historical events. It is a  credible – but rather improbable – account of the crime, and it respects the memories of the real people who lived through these events.

Her characterisation of Sarah is particularly striking, showing a woman struggling with the secrets that she chooses not to share in court; even though she know that she will suffer from the consequences of that decision.

I have to say that the setting up of the story is stronger that its playing out. Because the author gave every character a story, because she was careful to explain everything, I came to feel that there was a little too much going on. Real life is rarely tidied up so well, and that made events seem less real.

The story was strongest when it focused on Sarah Gale. On her life story, on her criminal conviction and on her life in prison.

Edmund Fleetwood was a credible and engaging character, but it was his own story that unbalanced this book for me. I wish that he had been simply the agent of Sarah’s story.

That said, the plotting was very effective.

There were some lulls in the story, but there was always more than enough to hold my interest.

I had to keep turning the pages, and I am very glad that I did.