A lawyer turned island crime author could see her new Skye-based thriller short-listed for the Highland Book Prize on Wednesday.
Anna Mazzola, whose passion for justice propels her writing, has spent her career as a human rights lawyer representing marginalised individuals, including those who fall through gaps in the criminal justice system.
She only started writing a few years ago while on maternity leave.
Now she will find out whether her novel, The Story Keeper, will make the shortlist alongside the likes of Val McDermid, after being long-listed for the prize in November.
Anna set her tale of missing girls in post-Clearances Skye after researching 19th Century sexual violence.
She chose a time and place in history where land and wealth would preclude privileged individuals from prosecution, despite chilling abuse of power.
The book, which came out on paperback on 10 January, has received wide critical acclaim.
And although a fictional departure from the legal ‘day job’, Anna believes cases involving society’s marginalised are still being overlooked by today’s justice system.
She said: ‘Because of my background, I’m interested in crimes which aren’t properly investigated or resourced. Many of those for whom I’ve acted had their stories silenced or disbelieved because of their backgrounds or social status.
‘As the MeToo movement has highlighted, this is particularly a problem with rape and sexual assault cases, which are rarely pursued to trial. Things were even worse in the 19th century.
‘When researching the book, I met with Professor Louise Jackson who’s written extensively on sexual violence in that era. It’s clear that, if you were an upper class man, you would never be charged with sexual offences. It was only lower class men who made it to the courts, and then only where there were witnesses, which was of course rare.
‘In the novel I originally wanted the perpetrators to be brought to justice, but I realised that would have been unrealistic. I had to find a different kind of justice for my characters.
‘I set the novel in Skye in the aftermath of the Clearances, partly because this was a community that wasn’t being listened to – that was being destroyed. They had their land taken from them, their culture, their stories.’
Despite living in London with her husband and two children, Anna (40) established a close bond with Skye, taking sleeper trains to Inverness then driving north to research.
Anna added: ‘It was only really by visiting Skye with its stunning and rather otherworldly landscape, when I heard the sound of the sea and the birds and felt the wind on my face that I felt I could recreate that for the reader.’
She decided to set her story around Broadford and the former crofting communities that were subject to enforced evictions. She became indebted to the Skye and Lochalsh Archive Centre staff who helped her find the crofter’s real voices.
She added: ‘Most accounts of 19th Century Skye were from wealthy Englishmen on a jolly jaunt through the Highlands, writing about how squalid the crofters’ huts were. That tells you little about what people’s lives were really like.
‘I also read much of the strange folklore of the island and of the Hebrides, some of which is woven through the book. It became a dark fairy tale about injustice and how the supernatural can be used to obscure rather more human wrongs.’
She found nuggets in the controversial Napier Commission Report of 1884 as well as in letters sent back by those cleared to America and Canada.
The Highland Book of the Year short-list will be announced on Wednesday 6th March.
Anna will be appearing at Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival on 17 March from 8-9pm at The Mitchell Library in Glasgow to talk about These Bloody Islands.