Author – Anna Mazzola
Published – 26 July 2018
Genre – Historical fiction
It’s been a long wait since Anna’s excellent debut ‘The Unseeing’ was published and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been looking forward to reading her second novel. Before I go any further I should say that it doesn’t disappoint!
Set on the Isle of Skye the book opens with the arrival of Audrey, running away from her family and an event which, at least in the early part of the book, is only hinted at, she is set to take up a post collecting folklore. She hopes that a return to Skye, which she remembers vaguely from some time in her childhood spent in the area, is a way to recapture a connection to her mother, who died when Audrey was ten. Her new employer is the imperious Miss Buchanan, she is to stay with Miss Buchanan and her nephew in their family estate – the neglected and brooding Lanerly Hall. Audrey isn’t feeling particularly confident about her ability to do the job she’s been employed for but she’s burned her bridges. And then she discovers the body of a young woman on the shore by the Hall.
While making some efforts to collect stories from the crofters Audrey asks tentative questions about the dead girl. The answers are a mix of superstition based around the folktales and more ‘earthly’ explanations. Her discovery of another girl’s disappearance only deepens the mystery. But as events play out Audrey becomes more isolated and weakened by the toll her involvement takes on her.
There is a social history aspect to the book, communities ravaged by the land owners and struggling, protective of their heritage and suspicious of outsiders. The factual background to the events which took place are probably not well known by most people and it’s always a positive to learn something from a work of fiction, especially when it’s done seamlessly, without the reader feeling that they’re being given lots of information. The folklore offers an interesting insight – does it develop as an explanation for the things which have no rational explanation; do the stories represent the truth or a warning?
I’ve read a number of historical fiction books recently which have this type of gothic feel to them but this one hits the mark in creating the dark and claustrophobic atmosphere with a set of compelling characters. There is a real sense of menace pervading this book and despite the July publication date it would be perfect for curling up on a dark night in front of a log fire.
I’ve seen comparisons to the excellent Burial Rites but for me it was similar to Burial Rites crossed with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Like Burial Rites the location is hugely important – rugged coastline, isolated communities, brutal weather. Audrey stands up as the heroine of the piece – conflicted, isolated, trying not to be defined by her past but at a time when women weren’t expected to act on their own. She has an inbuilt sense of justice but acting on it isn’t always the best course of action.
The story develops into multiple threads and there were some surprises in the way it plays out and the directions it takes. It’s unusual for a debut author not to be embarking on a series but other than the dark subjects and the compelling writing it was quite different to The Unseeing although equally enjoyable (in a dark and moody way). Many thanks to the publisher for the review copy.