Note: I received a copy of The Cottingley Secret from HarperCollins UK in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Since reading Last Christmas in Paris over the holidays, I have been eager to get my hands on more of Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb’s work. Knowing a little about the Cottingley fairies already, I was intrigued by a book that delved into how Frances and Elsie, two young girls from Yorkshire, convinced the world of the existence of magic after a joke that ‘was only meant to last two hours’, according to Elsie, took flight and ended up lasting 70 years – and beyond. Even if you aren’t familiar with the story, you may well have seen this photograph of Frances Griffiths, originally called ‘Alice and the Fairies’.
100 years after the first fairy photographs were taken, Olivia Kavanagh finds herself at the top of Howth Head with a letter from her grandfather informing her that she has inherited his bookshop, Something Old. A bookshop in Howth! What could be better? Olivia seizes this chance, having become disillusioned both with her life in London and planning a flashy wedding to Jack, a man she isn’t sure she loves. Olivia’s ‘Pappy’ also leaves her a manuscript written by Frances, the younger of the Cottingley girls, with a gentle instruction to give herself permission to live the life she really wants.
I was captivated by both stories from the moment Frances arrives in grey Yorkshire after her father leaves to fight in the Great War, and the moment Olivia learns that she is the new owner of Something Old. We return to the events in Cottingley each time Olivia ventures into the pages of Frances’ memoirs, and the story unfolds slowly alongside Olivia’s own, as she rediscovers the magic that has been missing from her own life and uncovers the link between her family in Ireland and the Cottingley fairies. The shift between the two timelines flowed nicely and I loved the cast of characters, from Frances’ teacher, Ellen, to the charming father-daughter duo of Ross and Iris in Howth.
One thing I really appreciated about The Cottingley Secret was the authenticity of its Irish voices. Too often I have read books or watched films set in Ireland, or featuring Irish characters, and seen a caricature of my country and its people. I read that Hazel Gaynor lives in Kildare, and it is evident in the way she writes Ellen, Olivia’s grandparents, and the new friends she makes in Howth. Gaynor captures the lilt of the accents and our unique turns of phrase without any of the ‘Top of the morning’ stereotyping that makes me cringe so much when I read it, and the charm of Howth with little snapshots of walking the cliffs and enjoying fish and chips with a view. I was able to recognise my own family in her characters – especially my grandmother, Kitty, who also made tapestries and was fond of the flower fairies – and it put a big smile on my face.
If you’re on the lookout for a heartwarming read (without being saccharine), look no further. The Cottingley Secret is enchanting, and an absolute treat.