Saturday 18 November 2017

Away with the fairies: a compelling tale full of whimsy

Evocative: Hazel Gaynor has a gift for vivid prose
Evocative: Hazel Gaynor has a gift for vivid prose
The Cottingley Secret

Tanya Sweeney

In 1917, two cousins - Elsie Wright, then 16, and Frances Griffiths, then nine - were playing at the bottom of their garden in Yorkshire when they decided to take some photos. In the resulting images, Frances, who had moved from South Africa to England with her mother, while her father was at war, was seen playing with five fairies.

At the time, Arthur Conan Doyle happened upon the photos and used them in a magazine as evidence of psychic phenomena, turning the young girls into overnight celebrities. The two girls ran with the story, and the world - ravaged by war and uncertainty - bought their story wholesale and took it at face value, desperate to believe in magic and frivolity.

For many years, these two young girls managed the near-impossible: to convince the world that fairies did indeed exist. It was a story that gripped the globe for many generations, even as the women got older, married and had children of their own.

Kildare-based author Hazel Gaynor has taken the girls' astonishing story as a jumping-off point for a tale that spans centuries. She reimagines the inner workings of the story from the vantage point of Frances. Much against her will, the pair go to great lengths to hide their secret: that the fairies are merely cardboard cut-outs from an old magazine.

Why didn't they admit to the hoax earlier? With a number of people twisting the story and turning the facts, there came a point where it was no longer the girls' truth to tell anymore.

In present-day Ireland, Olivia Kavanagh has come up against a dilemma after her grandfather leaves her his bookshop in his will. With the spectre of familial duty looming large, she must decide whether to stay in Ireland to run the bookshop, or return to London, where she has been living, settle down at 35 and marry someone she doesn't necessarily want to.

As she clears out her grandparents' home, Olivia discovers the story of, and an intriguing link to, the Cottingley Fairies anew. It isn't long before the intricacies of Elsie and Frances's story offers some lessons for Olivia, about truths and untruths.

In her previous books, The Girl From the Savoy in particular, Gaynor has already proved to have a canny knack for immersive, vivid and evocative writing. As would befit a story about fairies, there is gorgeous, gentle whimsy on every page; the literary equivalent of a gentle meadow stream.

"I think the books come alive at night when the shop is closed and the lights are turned out, I think they open their covers and fan out their pages like wings and start to fly," writes Gaynor. "Imagine it. Hundreds of books, flapping their pages, soaring and swooping because they're so alive with stories, they can't possibly sit still on the shelf."

Yet with Olivia's modern-day dilemmas hanging over her, Gaynor manages to save her prose from becoming too sickly. Also giving the story some heft is the Author's Note, in which Gaynor has interviewed Christine Lynch, Frances's daughter.

All in all, a book that provides company that's as compelling as it is warm.

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