1917: When two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright from Cottingley, England, announce they have photographed fairies at the bottom of the garden, their parents are astonished. But when the great novelist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, endorses the photographs’ authenticity, the girls become a sensation; their discovery offering something to believe in amid a world ravaged by war.
One hundred years later… When Olivia Kavanagh finds an old manuscript and a photograph in her late grandfather’s bookshop she becomes fascinated by the story of the two young girls who mystified the world. As Olivia is drawn into events a century ago, she becomes aware of the past and the present intertwining, blurring her understanding of what is real and what is imagined. As she begins to understand why a nation once believed in fairies, will Olivia find a way to believe in herself?
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Many thanks to Harper Collins Ireland for my copy of The Cottingley Secret to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Although The Cottingley Secret is the fourth book published by Hazel Gaynor, it is only the second I have read having enjoyed The Girl from the Savoy last year. This new book couldn't be more different from the aforementioned book as this time the readers attention is drawn to a story that came to light many years ago. It became so infamous at the time and centres around the story of two young women and what they discovered in Cottingley, so much so that the story itself still lives on today and is now once again brought to life, through Hazel's writing.
Before beginning this book I had heard vague mentions of a story where two young girls claimed to have photographed fairies and were able to play with them in the garden or near a stream. This was alleged to have happened in Cottingley, England. Whether this was all in the girls imaginations or whether it was a clever game that grew out of proportion and no longer controllable by the two girls remains to be seen. Whether you believe the story or think the photographic evidence is ample explanation for the existence of fairies or not it certainly caught the imagination of the public in 1917. I'll readily admit the idea of fairies seems a bit whimsical to me and more suited to childhood books and make believe play that so many of us engaged in when we were much younger. I think the fact that this was based on a true story made me intrigued to read the author's take on things.
I had my own opinions as to whether the events that unfolded actually happened and I don't think having read the book that they have changed. I don't believe in the existence of fairies, yet at the same time I'm not quite sure what happened between Frances and Elsie. I kept studying the photographs included at the end of the book and couldn't make any judgement as to whether they were doctored or not. The interview with a relative too was convincing but still I'm sticking to my viewpoint. I feel some readers may be put off by this book and view it as a fairy book but it's not all focused on Frances and Elsie exploits and even if like me you have a firm opinion, this is still a lovely book to read as Hazel Gaynor is a very good author.
The story moves between the present day and 1917. Normally when I read a dual time-line story I prefer the sections set in the past but strangely here it was the modern day story featuring Olivia that drew my attention more. I think this was because this storyline was bit more concrete where as it felt Elsie and Frances was slightly more abstract and fairytale like and there was nothing that caught my attention and wouldn't let go. Olivia is at a distinctive crossroads in her life, she is due to marry Jack Oliver in three months time but she is questioning whether this is what she wants. Is this her predetermined path in life or can she do something to change it? She is not one for happy endings like the endings in the books she loves so much. She holds close to her heart a painful secret that eats away at her. Instantly the reader is intrigued and can see that Olivia is inhabiting a world of confusion and uncertainty.
When we first encounter her she is opening a letter left to her by her grandfather. She has been left the bookshop that he poured his heart and soul into as well as a memoir given to her grandmother many years ago. Olivia wonders whether she can make a go of it? It is vastly different from the bookshop of her childhood, it holds so many wonderful memories but it has now fallen on hard times. Has Olivia the ability to make the necessary changes whilst still retaining the magic it created for her all those years ago? Combined with losing her beloved grandfather and the unexpected burden so to speak of the bookshop is her grandmother. She has lost her grandmother not physically but in her mind. She is now in her own world and Olivia is sad that she can't question her about the interesting memoir. Olivia is torn with what decision to make and as she uncovers the story of two little girls and some fairies her questions only ever multiply.
I much preferred Olivia's story, I loved that she loved books so much. I felt the anguish and uncertainty that she faced and that she didn't know the right decision to make. She wanted to do the best by her grandfather regarding the bookshop, and also care for her grandmother, but she had the added pressure of marriage to Jack always on her mind. Her life and her future with Jack in London seemed a world away from time running a bookshop. Maybe time away from Jack and reading through the memoir and also discovering a gift book given to Frances by her parents could take her mind off everything. When she least expected the answers might arrive and she would know the correct thing for her to do.
The addition of author Ross Bailey and his daughter Iris was lovely. Ross lost his wife and it seemed to me Olivia felt a connection with him, that she could identify with what he was going through. I enjoyed how their storyline was subtle, never rushed and not in your face and implausible. When strange things started happening the window of the shop, although slightly far fetched one has to forgo your beliefs and just go with the magic element in the modern day story.
Although as I said I did prefer the present day story, the story of Frances and Elsie and how Frances came to be in Cottingley was interesting but always at the back of my mind were the fairies. This aspect of the story was just too abstract for me, I need something concrete and firm to believe in or very strong evidence with which I could form an opinion. I totally understand this was the focus of the story. It did work in the overall plot of the story and meshed well with the Olivia's story in the present but for me personally it just didn't hold my interest the way it probably should have. I suppose people at the time mid way through World War One needed something to cling to, a sense of hope and the photos of the fairies playing with Frances taken by Elsie provided a distraction for people from the horrors they were enduring as the war continued to rage on.
Out of the two I felt Frances was very much led by Elsie and perhaps things spiralled out of her control and once the photographs became public knowledge they had to stick with what they had discovered. I enjoyed reading of Frances' own personal experiences that she didn't share with Elsie, it provided a different slant to the story and many questions arose as the reader worked there way through the story. There were one or two surprises and connections thrown in towards the end helping to bring the past and present together. Overall, The Cottingley Secret is a nice, pleasant read. After a slow start it does get going. It may not be my favourite read of 2017 but it does provide for plenty of discussion and debate.
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