“The Cottingley Secret” by Hazel Gaynor is literally a “fairy” tale. Do you remember the part in “Peter Pan” where Tinkerbell is dying and Peter says: “She’s going to die unless we do something. Clap your hands! Clap your hands and say ‘I believe in fairies.’” And then everyone – adults and children alike – does just that? Clapping and reciting that belief that fairies do exist.
In her latest novel, Hazel Gaynor brings back all those fond memories and more. She takes readers back to a world of enchantment with this intriguing mystery questioning if fairies really do exist. Even the Yorkshire setting appears magical, the shallow Beck with the little waterfall, the willow bough seat, and the sunlight illuminating the leaves on the trees.
Gaynor also believes in fairies, “100 percent. They are like Santa Claus where you do not want to question that sense of another being. During World War I so many lives were lost. People latched on to this magical story and were primed to believe there was an after life. They chose to escape the horrors of WWI and hoped there was another realm, where life went on. If we believe in something then we can make it happen. I think they were symbolic for a sense of hope, faith, and belief.”
Cottingley in Yorkshire became famous after two girls, in 1917, claimed they could see fairies. One, Frances Griffiths, believes she actually saw them, and the other, her cousin, Elsie Wright, thought it would make a great practical joke to play along with the observations of Frances. It’s easy to understand why Frances, a lonely young girl following her father’s going to war and her move from South Africa to England with her mother, would want to imagine magical figures. After telling her family and wanting very much to be believed she and her cousin Elsie take photographs of fairy cutouts, drawn by Elsie. It got out of hand when the famous British writer Arthur Conan Doyle, known for the Sherlock Holmes character, and photography experts heard about it, and in the course of investigating said that the photos were 100% authentic.
Fast forward 100 years to 2017 when Olivia Kavanagh finds out that her great grandmother was Frances’ teacher and played a role in the fairy hoax. But, she finds more information after her grandfather dies while combing through the old bookshop left to her. After discovering a photograph and a manuscript about the Cottingley fairies, Olivia feels a connection to the past. She becomes almost obsessed to find the answers to the mysterious photo and manuscript, hoping to sort out what is real and what is imagined.
Struggling in love and life she tries to cope with her mother’s death during her formative years, the recent death of her beloved grandfather that leaves her more alone than ever, a grandmother who has Alzheimer’s, and the realization that her fiancé is not someone she wants to spend the rest of her life with.
Gaynor’s scene about the loss of a loved one is very powerful, where her words express the feelings of anyone who also had someone they care for die. “The awful reality of his absence hit her… sending broken memories of happier times skittering across the creaky floorboards to hide in dark grief-stricken corners. He wasn’t there, and yet he was everywhere.”
The author noted, “I lost my mother when I was in my twenties. It could be written from my raw experience. As I grow older I feel that sense of loss because I could not talk to my mom about becoming a woman, a wife, and a mother. I just write on my life experiences as I enter into this fictional world. I expressed some of my feelings through Olivia because I could not express it through myself. I hope that the way I describe it makes sense to readers as well.”
It is said, that a mental photo is the representation in a person’s mind of the physical world. Yet, family members of those suffering from Alzheimer’s understand that the mental photo becomes dim over time. This powerful book quote can be a simile for Olivia’s grandmother, “There is more to every photograph than what we see-more to the story than the one the camera captures on the plate. You have to look behind the picture to discover the truth.”
Regarding Alzheimer’s, she commented, “my husband’s nana was suffering early stages of dementia before she passed. I wrote Martha’s story as her story. There is a sense of a fading away with the memories. For me, that is why a photograph is very important because it is a very permanent record of family. I also spoke with friends and how they felt the frustration of seeing their loved one slipping away.”
This is a book for adults who never want to grow old, or those who have a speckle of childhood left in them, and for parents to read to their children as a bedtime story. It is a magical tale that is moving and relatable.