Entertainment Book Reviews

Monday 23 April 2018

Fireside reads for autumn evenings


The Ludlow Ladies' Society Ann O'Loughlin

Black & White Publishing €15.99

The Cottingley Secret

Hazel Gaynor

Harper Collins


A photograph of Frances ‘Alice’ Griffiths taken by her cousin Elsie ‘Iris’ Wright, part of ‘The Cottingley Fairies’ series that served as inspiration for a novel by Hazel Gaynor (far below). Inset below: Ann O’Loughlin
A photograph of Frances ‘Alice’ Griffiths taken by her cousin Elsie ‘Iris’ Wright, part of ‘The Cottingley Fairies’ series that served as inspiration for a novel by Hazel Gaynor (far below). Inset below: Ann O’Loughlin

Anne Cunningham

Although they've written very different books, Ann O'Loughlin and Hazel Gaynor have both penned novels set in specific homes. In O'Loughlin's The Ludlow Ladies' Society the home is the fictional country manor, Ludlow Hall in Co Wicklow. Gaynor sets much of The Cottingley Secret in the very real 31 Main Street in Cottingley, Yorkshire.

Both novels explore the concept of home as refuge. Both depict the gnawing disquiet of unhappy couplings, and both stories use deception, including self-deception, as the springboard for their plots. Ludlow Hall's reluctant new owner is American Connie Carter. Having lost both her husband and her little daughter, she travels to Ireland to check out her dead husband's final, secret purchase. Ludlow Hall fails to impress.

Unoccupied for several years, it leaves Connie aghast. Why did her husband buy such a dilapidated place, so far away from Manhattan, in a place where he had no ties? And how did he sink all of their money into this without her knowledge?

Just up the street, the local seamstress wonders about the Hall's new owner. Eve was once the lady of Ludlow Hall. But shortly after losing her husband, she lost her opulent estate to bank repossession. She never knew her husband owed so much money, nor did she know that their home had been the collateral for his enormous debts.

She has lived humbly since she was turfed out, making wedding dresses to order. All she has now are her friends, a sewing circle called the Ludlow Ladies' Society. Some of these ladies' secrets are almost as tragic and shocking as Eve's. And indeed Connie's.

In The Cottingley Secret, two young girls hit international headlines with photographs they've taken at the stream running behind their back yard.

These photos, proclaimed as genuine by so-called world experts on spiritualism, show the girls playing with tiny fairies. The year is 1917 and there is still no end in sight to the Great War.

Cousins Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright spend their idle hours playing by the stream, convincing themselves that they're in a fairy lair. When they get their hands on a camera, they fake some photographs of themselves with the "fairies" (cardboard cut-outs from a children's book), insisting that the shots are real.

And their deception assumes a life of its own when Arthur Conan Doyle writes a much-publicised article about them. Those are the facts. Hazel Gaynor takes those facts and weaves a skilfully-threaded novel around them.

In 2017, Gaynor's fictional protagonist Olivia Kavanagh returns from London to her childhood home in Howth to take charge of her grandfather's antique bookshop, left to her in his will. Her grandmother is failing with Alzheimer's in a nearby nursing home. Raised by her grandparents, Olivia is determined to make the old bookshop work, even when she discovers its accompanying financial problems. But there are other challenges, too.

A career-minded fiance in London, for instance, who's busy climbing the greasy pole, is insistent that she simply sell up and move back. Their wedding is just a couple of months away. But Olivia is tired of her London life and the hustle and, besides, the sea breezes on Howth Head beckon her to stay.

The discovery of a manuscript written by one of the Cottingley girls, Frances Griffiths, convinces Olivia that - for the moment, at least - she is where she needs to be. This manuscript contains a direct link to Olivia's great-grandmother, whose daughter went missing in Cottingley in the same year as the girls produced their famous photographs.

Olivia's knowledge of her ancestry is scant. She wants to know more. Remaining in Howth is essential. So is giving the bookshop a much-needed boost, if she is to survive financially. But how can she admit this to her boyfriend? History is the fulcrum in both of these novels. O'Loughlin, through her work of fiction, recounts the aftershocks of the property crash, most keenly felt by the many it left homeless.

Her depiction of some banks in very recent history as thugs in suits is, as we all know, very much fact-based. The history of the "fairy photographs" in Hazel Gaynor's novel is also well-known and surfaced again in the late 20th century when Elsie Wright, by then an old woman, finally admitted to the photographs being fakes. Secrets and lies are also integral to both plots. In The Ludlow Ladies, Connie and Eve are thrown together by circumstance, both having suffered immeasurably from the deception of their dead husbands. In The Cottingley Secret, we learn that the young Yorkshire girls suffered too, as a harmless prank became world news. Both novels are perfect fireside reads on these chilly evenings.

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