In the midst of war, two young girls find mystery and magic that will come to shake the world.
The Cottingley Secret, as the name hints, is a tale about the two young girls of Cottingley who photographer fairies on summer in the middle of the Great War. This story is actually two in one. Part follows Frances, as she recounts her experiences that summer via a manuscript. The other follows Olivia, who’s in Ireland after her grandfather passed. She has inherited his bookshop, Something Old, and his house. Olivia has also inherited Frances’ manuscript.
As she gets the shop in order, cleans out the house and puts it to market, and makes frequent visits to see her Nana, who lives in a faculty for dementia, Olivia rads the manuscript, and struggles to find herself. She’s trapped in an impending marriage that she knows will fail. Can fairy magic of ages past help set Olivia free?
This book made me cry in several places. I empathize with Olivia, not having the chance to speak to her grandparents about their younger years. You always mean to, feel for sure there’ll be time, and there is…til there isn’t. I wish I had learned more of my grandmother’s time growing up in a large family, of my grandfather’s time during WWII, and Korea, of the young family that shaped my father’s personality. All three are gone now, and that door has closed.
It is a book with the weight of history to it, for while Olivia’s story may not be part of our world, Frances and Elsie certainly were. I gained a greater appreciation for the historical dynamics behind why these photos garnered so much attention, and belief they were real was so strong. It gave me a greater understanding of why Sir Arthur Conan Doyle endorsed the photos, for I’ve always struggled to reconcile how the man who introduced us to Sherlock Holmes could bounce so far the other direction, from logic to whimsy.
People needed wonder, beauty, and innocence to cling to during/ after the Great War, and many found it in the notion of fairies. Yes, the photos may have been a hoax, but I believe Frances’ story, that she really saw something wondrous that summer. Something fragile and precious.
And it’s what Olivia needed as well. She found courage and grace, and learned to trust her intuition. This saved her from a loveless marriage of ‘safety’ on convenience. It allowed her to reclaim part of her lost heritage, as she learned of Mrs Hogan and Aisling. Sidenote- I love that the name Aisling was used. It is the Gaelic form of my Welsh-derived name- Aislynn. It means ‘dream, vision’, and was so appropriate to this story.
Both stories were equally captivating, and I thoroughly lost myself reading this book. You are left to decide for yourself if the fairy magick is real. I believe!
(This would be a great book club reading choice, especially for historical fiction.)
***This book was reviewed for the Manhattan Book Review.