I won a signed paperback of The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor in a Twitter promotion on #NationalNorthernWritersDay on July 1st last year and it’s been sitting on my to-read shelf since then. I picked it up one weekend when searching for a comforting, absorbing read, and that’s what it is.
Told in dual timeline, it is partly based on the true story of the two young girls who photographed fairies at the bottom of their garden, combined with a fictional imagining of a 21st century bookbinder who inherits a bookshop in Ireland. The story is slow to start and it’s a while before the fairy connection between the two strands is established. But hang in there.
In 1917, Frances Griffiths and her mother travel from South Africa to Cottingley, Yorkshire. They will stay with Frances’ aunt, uncle and cousin while her father goes off to fight the Great War. Frances soon settles into life with her older cousin Elsie and together the two play imaginary games. Until one day Frances sees fairies beside the beck at the back of the house, ‘…the first flash of emerald, then another of blue, then yellow, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. Not dragonflies. Not butterflies. Something else.” After confiding in Elsie, Frances blurts out her secret to her mother who doesn’t believe her. None of the adults do. What follows is an innocent attempt to prove the adults wrong, an attempt which spirals out of control. Soon Mr Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, is involved and the possibility of confessing their secret becomes impossible.
In present day Ireland, Olivia Kavanagh arrives in her hometown of Howth on a sad journey. Her grandfather Pappy has died. Olivia feels helpless as she visits grandmother Nana, who suffers from dementia and lives in a local nursing home. But Pappy has left a letter and a surprise for Olivia. He has left her his secondhand bookshop, Something Old, and Bluebell Cottage. But Olivia lives and works in London as a rare book restorer and is due to marry fiancé Jack in a few weeks.
This is a novel about the need for hope at a time of upheaval and uncertainty, both in the midst of war in 1917 and for Olivia in the 21st century. ‘If we believe in fairies, perhaps we can believe in anything,’ says Frances’ mother. If they can believe in the end of the war, they can believe in the return of loved ones and the resumption of normal life.
As a childhood lover of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies, I found this novel to be a wonderful read. Gaynor knits together the wonder of the fairies with the darker themes of world war, and the modern challenges facing Olivia who is lost but doesn’t know it.
BUY THE BOOK
Read my review of Hazel Gaynor’s WW2 story, THE BIRD IN THE BAMBOO CAGE.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE COTTINGLEY SECRET by @HazelGaynor #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5b8 via @SandraDanby