Published by William Morrow on August, 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Faeries, Historical
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1917… It was inexplicable, impossible, but it had to be true—didn’t it? When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, claim to have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when one of the great novelists of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes convinced of the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a national sensation, their discovery offering hope to those longing for something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war. Frances and Elsie will hide their secret for many decades. But Frances longs for the truth to be told.
One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story it tells of two young girls who mystified the world. But it is the discovery of an old photograph that leads her to realize how the fairy girls’ lives intertwine with hers, connecting past to present, and blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, can Olivia find a way to believe in herself?
I almost fell out of my chair when I discovered the existence of The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor. The Cottingley Fairies has always intrigued me so much, (one of my favourite movies is Fairy Tale: A True Story) so as you can imagine, I clicked ‘add to basket’ and eagerly awaited the book’s arrival, despite not having read anything in an absolute AGE.
“But wishes, like fairies, are fickle things. They rarely do what you want them to do.”
The Cottingley Secret follows two stories – the first belonging to young 9-year-old Frances Griffiths, one of the two girls involved in the 1917 true events surrounding the photography of ‘real fairies’. Arriving in Cottingley with her mother after her father’s enlistment in the British Army and subsequent departure to the front in World War I, Frances finds friendship with her cousin, Elsie Wright.
The second narrative follows thirty-something, Olivia Kavanaugh, an Irishwoman returning home to the village of Howth after the death of her grandfather. Olivia is unwilling to admit to herself that she’s running away from an unhappy engagement, occupying herself instead with the familiar walls of her late grandfather’s bookshop, Something Old, and getting to know the charismatic Ross Bailey – writer and single father of a charming young daughter named Iris.
The two stories intertwine (and somehow fit so well together, despite the narrators being so far apart in age!) with Olivia’s discovery of Frances Griffith’s unpublished memoir, telling the Cottingley story in her own words and ‘setting the record straight’. At times I couldn’t even figure out myself which story I was enjoying more – Frances’ was utterly perfect in the historical sense and the prose and lyricism blew me away at times. I found myself saving so many quotes for later reflection, marvelling at how Hazel Gaynor could capture Yorkshire and its mystical beauty and changing of the seasons so well. Then, when my brain ‘tired’ a little, the contemporary setting of Howth and Olivia’s challenges with her grandparents’ finances and trying to create a new life for herself were so refreshing and easy to get lost in.
“In that moment, and perhaps for much longer, it seemed to me that the possibility of believing in fairies was more important than one little girl telling the truth.”
Frances’ journey was both intriguing and bittersweet. I loved ‘experiencing’ how the hoax came to be, and how something so small and innocent soon ballooned into a worldwide news story once in the hands of adults. Though we may claim to ‘know’ what really happened in Cottingley with certain new evidence that have come to light, I don’t think we can ever truly be sure there was never any fantastical or magical element to it all. The Cottingley Secret reflects this well, maintaining the real Frances Griffith’s belief that the fifth and ‘final’ photograph was real, and that she really did see fairies in Cottingley despite admitting the other photos were staged. It’s clear that Hazel Gaynor has done her research (the afterword explains she even met with Frances’ daughter while writing the book) and even with the fictional inclusion of Olivia’s familial connection, you could find yourself forgetting (like me!) that The Cottingley Secret and the memoir written ‘by Frances’ inside isn’t the real deal.
“As I lay in the dark, listening to the distant rush of the waterfall, I hoped that part of me would always be nine and a half, and that even when I was an adult and had to face the world with all its grown-up responsibilities, part of me would always know the excitement of the fascinating things I’d seen at the beck. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than a life without such wonders. How dull and sad life would be if it was all work and chores and war.”
My knowledge of the Cottingley Fairies has been made richer by The Cottingley Secret. My interest in the subject has been renewed tenfold and I can only imagine how someone new to the story might come away feeling about it all.
This book was so near perfect that it absolutely pains me to give it only four-out-of-five stars. And why? Well, I suppose it all comes down to my personal reading preferences and nothing to do with the actual book itself. I wouldn’t change anything about Frances story itself, but I had hoped there would be a little mention of what happened to her later in life. Most of my personal irks came with Olivia’s story, and things that were left unexplained (the identity of her father, more information about how her mother had died, what was Aisling’s cause of death?). I came to feel that the ending to Olivia’s story was a little rushed, although it left things open-ended for the reader to come up with their own conclusion.
If you’re after beautiful prose, a heart-warming story or just a lovely little comfort read – The Cottingley Secret is a fantastic pick. For those enthusiastic about the history itself, you won’t be disappointed. It’s safe to say that I will be picking up more of Hazel Gaynor’s books quite soon!