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.