Map of Blue Book Balloon

8 April 2021

#Review - The Cottingley Cuckoo by AJ Elwood

The Cottingley Cuckoo
AJ Elwood (Alison Littlewood)
Titan Books, 14 April 2021
Available as: PB, 368pp, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN (PB): 9781789096859

I'm grateful to Titan for an advance e-copy of The Cottingley Cuckoo via NetGalley to consider for review.

'I want to see my mum, just once, for a little while, I want to tell her that this can't be me; I'm not ready'

I've previously loved Elwood's horror novels, written as Alison Littlewood, and was intrigued to see this one, which moves onto slightly different ground

Rose is a young woman who has dropped out of university, at first to care for her dying mother but then to make a home with Paul (who her mother disapproved of). Now, although she seems to have dropped any idea of resuming her degree and has instead found work at the Sunnyside Care Home she still dreams of "getting out", living perhaps in 'a house in a forest, a turret reaching up amid the branches, a circular room lined with shelves where I'll keep my mother's books'. That's what Paul says he loves about her - that she "believes". But Rose is becoming increasingly obsessed with, her belief engaged by, one of her clients - the intimidating Mrs Favell, a woman who seems almost like a tourist at Sunnyside - and with the story, told in a batch of letters, which Favell lets her read.

That story takes us back to the 1920s, and to the nearby town of Cottingley where a couple of young girls (Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright) claimed to have photographed fairies - claims, and photographs, which were taken seriously in an age before Photoshop, including by the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a noted Spritualist and believer in the supernatural. Mrs Favell's letters (how did she get them?) tell of another family in Cottingley, the Fentons, one subject to a bizarre chain of misfortunes and inexplicable events, in which Lawrence Fenton tries without success to interest Sir Arthur. 

Gradually, Rose begins to suspect Charlotte Favell of being the Charlotte of the letters, impossible as it seems. And as Rose discovers herself unexpectedly pregnant, apparently cementing her future with Paul, she begins to see her life through the lens of the letters which Favell teasingly doles out, one at a time. Rose comes to believe that she is living through similar, fairy-haunted episodes to those described one hundred years before.

I have to say, I found this book just incredibly good, so powerful and so true. Elwood has captured, in the same story, two apparently very different narratives, deriving from very different times and manners. Rose is a wonderful, though sad, depiction of a young woman who just seems to have got lost. She's hardly over the grief of her mother's death - not over it, in fact - when Paul moves in on her. (I don't think we're meant to dislike Paul, really, but I found it hard to not regard him as a real snare for Rose.) Then Rose has the misfortune to cross paths with Mrs Favell, a clever, mysterious woman who certainly has secrets and perhaps, answers. There is, at the very least, a powerful sense of enchantment, perhaps a kind of Mesmerism, between the two.

And then - pregnancy, birth, the extreme stress of learning to live with a young child. 

O Rose. 

I so felt for Rose, struggling to come to terms with all this, with the doubts about everything - herself, her child. Newborns are hard work. So much about Rose, to me, seemed to be flashing warnings that she needed help, and it's here that Elwood really gets going, producing a glorious, emotionally rending and deeply ambiguous story that leaves you not knowing if Rose's suspicions about her son Alexander - she fears he is a changeling - are symptoms of her mental state, or insights generated by it, or perhaps both. 

All the themes that follow - life and death, the strange existence of a being that owes its whole basis to your care and nourishment, the grief of a mother whose daughter has gone from her and a daughter whose mother is dead - wrap around this. Rose's pregnancy is the time she needs, wants her mother most. The descriptions of scans, of the birth and its aftermath so cleverly and affectingly combine a matter-of -act, objective depiction of what happened with the gulf of unsatisfied feelings that lies beneath ('I realise they're waiting for me to do it - to be a mother')

You can read the story as one of obsession and delusion, or as one of violation and cruelty. It's full of opposites clinging to one another: the perception, hanging over from the Victorians, of fairies as dainty little beings of beauty and light, contrasting with folkloric amoral, cruel creatures. The desire to possess what one loves, distorting and eventually maiming or killing it. And much more. The narrative becomes tricksy, Rose perhaps a not completely reliable narrator, not even to herself - does she really not know what become of the fairytale books from among her mother's collection? ('Did they vanish into the air? ... Was the memory even true...?') Later Rose will have more serious doubts as gaps open up in her reality, prompting her to recall those whose brief stays in Fairyland lasted years in our time. 

This book is... oh, it's so sad, so human. Rose and Paul are, in a real sense, talking past one another. Of the two, Rose is I think the deeper, the more thoughtful, but she is suffering for it. Perhaps they might have been able to resolve that, but the baby comes along and shifts the dynamic. Rose suspects Paul of having messed with her pills to bring this about, a mystery that's never returned to but a sign either of basic mistrust on her part or of unforgivable duplicity on his - not a firm basis for a relationship either way. 

So this book is in a sense an unravelling, a disenchantment, at the same time as it explores all the ways that, and the extent to which, we wish to be enchanted, to believe, or perhaps, to find and possess someone who does themselves believe - with all that harm that will follow from that possession.

It is not a horror story. 

It is a horror story. 

It's just amazing.

For more information about The Cottingley Cuckoo, see the publisher's website here.

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