The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

The cottingley secret

As Tom Cruise’s character famously said in the wonderful film Jerry Maguire: ‘We live in a cynical world.  A cynical world.’   And never more so than now it seems.

So, upon receiving my copy of The Cottingley Secret, I knew I would have to leave my cynicism at the door if I was to stand any chance of enjoying this novel.

The novel weaves between the past and present day.  The past story begins in 1917 and is told from the perspective of nine-year-old Frances Griffiths, who has been torn from her secure life in Cape Town to move to Cottingley in Yorkshire with her mother.  The move is due to her father having joined the war.   Frances and her mother are to live with Frances’s aunt Polly, Uncle Arthur and her cousin Elsie.   Elsie is seven years older than Frances, but the two become firm friends.

On her first night in Yorkshire Frances hears an unexpected noise and Elsie explains that there is a waterfall at the beck in Cottingley Woods, situated behind the house. This is where Frances will have her first sighting of the fairies and where her life is to change forever.

Meanwhile, in the present-day, Olivia Kavanagh has her own sorrows to seek.  Following the death of her Grandfather, her beloved ‘Pappy,’ she returns to Ireland leaving behind her fiancée Jack and her high-flying life in London.  In his will Pappy has left her his second-hand bookshop ‘Something Old.’  Olivia is left to sort out the family affairs and visit her beloved Grandmother who is in a home suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  When Olivia finds Frances’s story and discovers a connection, their lives become inextricably linked.

The narrative weaves seamlessly between the past and the present as we follow the ever-growing complications in the lives of both Frances and Olivia.   The author lets the narrative unfold as gently and slowly as the beck that flows through the woods.

The novel is full of delightful snatches of poetry and I nearly cried upon reading lines that my father used to quote to my brother and me all the time. Frances hears them initially from Mrs Hogan:

“Up the airy mountain/Down the rushy glen,/ We daren’t go a-hunting/For fear of little men.”

I had always thought these lines were from Robbie Burns, so was surprised to discover they were actually written by William Allingham!

Frances and Olivia both adore fairy rhymes and stories, and there are many references to both throughout the novel, adding to the sense of magic.

Spoiler alert: (skip the next two paragraphs if you don’t’ want to know the secret!) If you don’t know the real story of the Cottingley fairies, Frances and Elsie take fake photographs of the fairies in order to silence Aunt Polly, Uncle Arthur and Annie (Frances’s mother) who have been giving out to Frances for spending so much time at the Beck.  She blurts out that she has seen fairies (true) but of course proof is required, and when Uncle Arthur invests in a camera, the plot is hatched.   I won’t give away any more, suffice to say, it is a secret that grows ever more complicated with the passing of time.

I felt for Frances throughout, having to live with the burden of what she had done, and that she had in fact seen fairies made it all the more poignant.  To ease that sadness though, there was the mysterious ‘fifth photograph’ which, although it remains with a question mark, may yet prove to be authentic. Now if that isn’t magical, I don’t know what is?! End of Spoiler!

The prose is elegant, and it is clear that Hazel Gaynor loves both the story and her characters, as it shines through in the writing.  This is a book that brings warmth, reassurance and a little bit of magic to the imagination. I was reminded of the joy of losing myself in fairy stories as a child, and the absolute wonder these stories have on the imagination.  Hazel Gaynor imbues her characters with typical Yorkshire and Irish warmth and kindness, and there are plenty of interesting sub plots; such as that of Ellen Hogan and her missing daughter Aisling.

It is also fascinating to read the story behind the story. Hazel Gaynor lets us in to her thought process in the author’s notes, as to why she created some of the fictional characters:  ‘What if there were others in Cottingley who also believed in fairies? It was these questions, and the generational connection between Christine and Frances, that led to the creation of my fictional characters Ellen, Martha and Olivia.’

For me (again the cynicism – sorry!) there were a few too many convenient co-incidences making life that bit ‘too easy’ for the characters.  But that is a tiny gripe of a wonderful novel. The mystery of the two girls and their prank, and it being based on a true story makes it a fascinating tale, and when you add Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the mix, it is an incredible story.

Hazel Gaynor has found an imaginative and unique way of bringing a true story to life within a fictional world.  An intriguing mystery alongside a piece of magical fiction.  This is a beautifully written piece of nostalgia with a dollop of magic on the side.   Gorgeous!

Many thanks to Harper Collins for sending me a review copy.

 

 

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All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

All The Wicked Girls is Chris Whitaker’s second novel.  Following on from his highly successful debut ‘Tall Oaks’ which was published in 2016.

The blurb goes:  Raine sometimes complains that nothin’ exciting is ever gonna happen in Grace again.

Daddy told her careful what you wish for.

Everyone loves Summer Ryan.  A model student and musical prodigy, she’s a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama – especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.

Then Summer vanishes.

Raine throws herself into the investigation, aided by a most unlikely ally, but the closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous her search becomes.

And perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye…’

Every once in a while, an author comes on to the scene who has something special.  I believe Chris Whitaker is such an author.   What makes him special?  His ability to write character and voice which is so authentic and visceral, that as a reader, you become completely engrossed in the story, you come to genuinely love the characters, and temporarily forget they are not real.

Whitaker has the Alabama drawl, the Alabama setting and heat, and the Alabama character so perfectly fine tuned, that I had lost myself in the town of Grace within a few short chapters.

The novel is divided into the chapters that are narrated by Summer herself – these are short chapters, with just enough information to keep us tantalized as the mystery unfolds.  The other chapters are told in the third person, but they are so tightly narrated they feel as if the various main characters are talking to us directly.

At the heart of this novel is not just a murder mystery, but a story, or should I say several stories of friendship.  The friendship I was most drawn to was that between two teenage boys who help Raine to look for Summer – Noah and Perv.  Their friendship goes above and beyond, and the love and respect they have for each other is incredibly touching.  Both have unique frailties and issues (can’t give away any plot spoilers) and to buoy each other up they use catch phrases like: ‘we’re brave.’ Or, ‘we’re fierce and we’re brave.’

After one of the many scrapes they get into, which they inevitably lose, there is an adorable exchange between the two:

‘I had him,’ Noah said.

‘I know you did,’ Purv said. ‘I had your back.’

‘I know you did.’

Raine and her sister Summer also have a uniquely close bond, and as we come to know the character of Raine, our sympathy grows as we understand how Summer is more than a twin, she is an integral part of Raine’s life, connected in so many ways.

Against this backdrop of messed up lives we have the town of Grace itself.  A low down dirty place, where houses are dilapidated, streets are dirty and the town believes the end is nigh, as a predicted storm turns the sky dark and remains that way for weeks.

It is a suffocating atmosphere and the author brilliantly builds the tension of the story, as they sky grows darker, the air grows hotter, and the atmosphere becomes so oppressive you can nearly smell the fear-induced sweat.

As with many small towns in the deep south, religion is a way of life.  In Grace, the recently retired Pastor Lumen breathed his own brand of hell fire.  The current pastor Bobby is a different man altogether, but cannot escape the torment of his violent past.   The irony of Grace is that the majority of the town turn up for church on Sunday before leaving and committing a multitude of sins, ranging from adultery to murder.  Like the river that runs through the town, they think by stepping into the church, their sins are miraculously washed away.

This is a novel that fulfills its purpose on every level; the setting, the characters and the story are all uniquely woven to form a masterful piece of work, and one which will live in my memory for a long time.  If ‘Tall Oaks’ was a successful debut, then ‘All the Wicked Girls’ deserves all the plaudits, awards and adulation I know have begun, and I hope will continue.   An incandescent novel.