“Possibility is where all the best stories begin.”
Hazel Gaynor could write flatpack furniture instructions and they would still be utterly enchanting; I honestly cannot find the words to do justice to her ability to make stories come alive. As has been the case with her other novels I’ve read thus far, I didn’t read ‘The Cottingley Secret’, I lived it. Or at least, it certainly felt as though I did. This was absolutely not a novel I could dip in and out of between appointments or on lunch breaks; as soon as I opened the pages I was totally consumed by the characters and their unique journeys. Put simply, if I’d read this while running a bath, my house definitely would have flooded.
My knowledge of the Cottingley fairies was pretty limited before reading this re-telling; like most people, I’d seen the photos at some point but never really known the story behind them. I vaguely remember seeing the film adaptation in the 90’s, but even that memory is quite hazy now (especially as I am reluctantly beginning to accept that the 90’s were 30 years ago and not 10 as I often still think they were). If anything, however, that possibly made this story even more enthralling for me. I first discovered Hazel Gaynor’s novels through ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter’, which reimagines the story of a really significant part of North East history and was therefore close to my heart, and also thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Girl who Came Home’ set around the Titanic, an event which we all have some knowledge of, but having limited knowledge of the ‘real’ events made me feel so much more connected to the characters. For once, I had no desire to google every detail and compare this retelling to the story of the ‘real’ fairies because I knew Hazel’s version is the one I want to believe is true.
Having said that, for the few aspects of the story I did google in vain attempts to pacify my own curiosity, even though I knew some parts were products of Hazel’s imagination and arose from the need to advance plots or fill in gaps in the real story, she intertwines fact and fiction so well that it becomes extremely difficult to separate the two. The story of the Cottingley fairies is already a pretty solid base for an exciting and spellbinding story, but Hazel’s imagination is like adding petrol to the low embers of a bonfire and giving the reader an absolute inferno of intrigue and excitement.
It must be difficult enough to tell one story, with the complexities of character depths and managing plot progression, but again Hazel Gaynor has taken that challenge and raised it with another story interweaved through the original so neatly that they’re knitted together like stripes in a jumper. The story of the present-day Olivia embarking on a new adventure despite her heart-breaking personal losses, whilst running the bookshop of all of our dreams, had enough emotion and intrigue to be a standalone contemporary fiction novel, but using this as the lens through which we discover Frances and Elsie’s secrets means we’re gifted with two incredible stories for the price (or three-week library loan in my case) of one. Personally, I found both stories equally gripping as well, something I find quite rare in these novels which flit between past and present; usually I develop a clear preference for one story after a few chapters and find the parallel story an irritating inconvenience but that couldn’t be further from how I felt whilst reading ‘The Cottingley Fairies’.
My ever-sceptical husband did ask me, whilst I was about half way through ‘The Cottingley Secret’ why I was reading a fantasy book when this isn’t usually my genre of choice, and why I was so invested when, quote, ‘they’re obviously not real’ but, in a way, are any books real? Every time we crack the spine of a novel we’re entering someone’s world of fantasy and make-believe. And, the key question with the Cottingley fairies is not whether the photographs were real or faked, but whether you choose to believe.
“There’s magic in every bookshop, Olivia. You just have to bring people to it. The books will take care of the rest.”