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.



Review of ‘Making It Up As I Go Along’ by Marian Keyes.


There are two female Irish writers who I think are underrated.  Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes.  Both undoubtedly beloved and revered, but I don’t think people appreciate what skilled writers they were in Maeve’s case, and are in Marian’s.     The trick is, they make it look effortless, but it’s not, and I don’t think people appreciate that enough.

‘Maeve’s Times’ by Maeve Binchy is one of my favourite books ever.  It made me laugh, cry, and sigh with envy.  I re-read it from time to time and it gets better with every reading.

So, it was with some trepidation and excitement that I set out to read Marian’s series of articles. The trepidation came because I was nearly afraid I wouldn’t like them, and that would have been terrible, what with being such an ardent admirer.  I should have known my fears were ridiculous.

I began reading the book one night whilst in bed.  My husband began to look at me in a most alarming manner, as I began to shake with laughter and then to snort most unbecomingly.  At one point, I think I sounded like Pluto the dog.  From the very first piece on ‘Fake Tan,’ where my snorting was caused by an anecdote in which Marian goes to get fake tan administered at a salon for the first time.  She isn’t told until it is applied that she can’t wash it off until the following morning.  Unfortunately, she had plans to go out for dinner for her mammy’s birthday.  As she tells it:

“At the restaurant I caused a bit of a stir.  As if the smell wasn’t bad enough, bits of the mud were going black and green and falling off my face into my dinner.”

I don’t laugh easily.  A friend at school once told me I was terrible for laughing at other’s misfortunes.  I prefer to think I am laughing with them.  Marian Keyes is so exquisitely funny about the calamities that can strike when we least expect it and we are doing our best to just get on with things.  I laugh in understanding, in female solidarity and in empathy.

I once told a friend a story about leaving a suitcase in the wrong person’s house in London, and as it was the height of the troubles, and it was found with a Belfast address, all kinds of hell broke loose, while I was busy sunning myself on a beach in France.  It’s a long, complicated story, but my friend has been dining out on it ever since, and says it is the funniest thing she has ever heard.

Equally, my 10-year-old niece adores the story of how I sprayed myself from head to toe with an anti-mosquito Citronella spray and inadvertently became exceptionally drunk from the amount of ethanol in the spray. And there was me thinking it was natural and therefore safe.

So I have had more than my fair share of minor disasters too, and this my friends is where Marian is a joy.  She is generous in sharing both her good successful experiences (of which there are many I might add) and her less successful forays into areas of her life such as travel, the beauty industry, exercise, and the complicated business of living.  I am not a sycophant.  For example, I don’t always agree with her butchering of the English language for comic purposes – it doesn’t always work for me.

However, I do love this book and I think everyone should read it, for it is a tonic for the soul.  Marian Keyes is a great conversationalist, and her narrative voice is what makes the book special.  She writes as if you were sitting in her kitchen, having a chat and a cuppa. What’s not to love?

To end:

10 reasons why Marian Keyes is Fabulous:

  1. Despite her success as an author, she never pretends it is easy, and she is happy to admit she struggles with her writing.
  2. She is self-deprecating and exceptionally witty, but we also know that she is really very clever.
  3. She loves Alexander McCall Smith. I was SO excited when I read this.  Whenever I rave on to people about AMS, they usually mumble something about having read a couple of his books, but look at me like I am a bit sad.  This enrages me and makes me rave all the more.  Marian gets him, and his lovely books.
  4. She is generous in the extreme in sharing her tips for all kinds of things, from cooking to beauty, to writing, and she shares her mistakes too, so we can all learn from them.
  5. She is hilarious about ‘himself’ and showed her vulnerability and brilliant sense of humour when ‘himself’ went off trekking up a mountain somewhere far away (sorry don’t remember where it was) and she feared she would ‘lose him’ to one of the females in the climbing group.  She tweeted with much angst and hilarity.
  6. She is a big fan of Strictly and her blogs and tweets re the shows are unmissable.
  7. Her tweets and vlogs are legendary. Also, she is not like many well-known people who think they are too important to tweet with a non-celeb! She tweets with lots of different people.
  8. Her book ‘Is Anybody Out there?’ is one of the best novels I have read about the experience of grief. It stayed with me for ages afterwards.
  9. She supports causes she believes in, and donated her royalties for ‘Making It Up As I Go Along’ to the Save the Children Syria crisis. I mean – Come On.
  10. She started her tribute to Jilly Cooper at the Bord Gais Energy Book Awards last December, by addressing the assembled company with her signature vernacular of ‘Lads…..’ I was watching it on the T.V. and nearly fell off my sofa in admiration and glee.  Funny, funny fabulous woman.

P.S.  I have decided not to tweet Marian the link to this piece for fear that she will –

(a) Think I am a stalker, which I am SO not.   I am happy to admire from afar.  (Or even worse, she gets the link but doesn’t bother to read it.)

(b) She will hate it and think me a creepy fan.  This would kill me altogether, so this remains between us.  I am just glad to have put it out there to encourage you to buy the book.  You can laugh and support a good cause. Sure, what more could you want?

P.P.S.  If you have been following my ‘Reading Gym’ list or ‘List of Betterment’ (see November’s blog post.)  I will be back next week with my review of ‘Les Jeux Sont Faits’ by Sartre.   The book for March is ‘Persuasion’ by Jane Austen.