The Cottingley Cuckoo is the latest novel from Alison Littlewood, writing here under the pen-name A.J. Elwood, and much like some of her previous works it deals with fairies, and the events that occurred in the village of Cottingley in the early 1900s.
The story takes place in the modern day, where we follow Rose, a young woman who’s just started working at the Sunnyside residential home as a carer. Rose describes herself as a ‘believer’ and through her narration we learn that care work isn’t really a calling for her, and is simply a job to help her on her way to bigger and better things. She’s had to put some of her ambitions on hold due to the loss of her mother, and supporting her unemployed boyfriend as the sole earner, but is determined that Sunnyside is going to be nothing more than a stop along the way for her.
On her first day there she’s sent to attend to Mrs Favell, one of the residents at the home. Unlike the others, Mrs Favell seems incredibly independent; she’s in apparently good health and doesn’t seem to have any mental health issues. She’s definitely out of place. She’s also cold, stern, and incredibly incisive. She very quickly gets under Rose’s skin, especially when she reveals a stack of old letters that seem to hint that the famous fairy hoax might have had some truth to it.
Rose is slowly drip fed the letters by the older woman, who seemingly starts to manipulate Rose. When Rose discovers she’s pregnant her dreams of being able to move on from her work as a carer begin to evaporate before her eyes, especially when her partner is unable to find work. The letters that Rose lets her read begin to convince Rose that there may be more going on that she first suspects, and when strange things start to happen around her baby she comes to believe that not only might the fairy world be real, but that it has her family in its sights.
I had a lot of fun reading The Cottingley Cuckoo, due in large part to how the story was teased out. The two narratives, the one of Rose in the modern day and the letters regarding a fairy encounter in the 1920s, intertwined really well, and the old letters always impact Rose’s story whenever they appear. The content of the letters could have easily been a story themself, and it’s a narrative that’s at times more intruiging than the rest of the book. This was in part down to Rose.
I liked Rose, she seemed like a nice person, though one who never really felt truly in control. She seems content to go through her life allowing things to happen to her, despite having desires to go on to do other things with her life. She wants to leave care work, but she never makes it clear what she’d prefer to do instead. She doesn’t want to live in her town all her life, yet never really makes a point of where she’d want to be instead. She had vague ambitions, but does nothing to achieve them, and this is made even worse by her seeming willingness to allow others to push her around.
There are times in the book where Rose very much feels like a victim. Her colleagues at work don’t show any interest in her, and some are even hostile towards her. She doesn’t seem to have much say in her home life either, and after her child is born she quickly caves into her partner’s desire for her to go back to work and be the sole wage earner whilst he gets to be a stay at home father, simply because he doesn’t seem to want to try finding work. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, but when she’s coming home from a long day’s work and having to clear up his mess from the day because he hasn’t done anything, or is having the baby left with her because he wants to go to the pub it does become quite irritating. I wanted Rose to stand up for herself, to take charge of her life, but she never seemed to have the self respect to do that.
Mrs Favell proved to be a much more interesting character by far, and there were times during the book that I wanted to spend longer with her, to see how she interacted with people. I wanted to know if she was the way she was with everyone, or if she was making a thing of tormenting this one woman. Unfortunately, you don’t get a lot of answers, but coming to your own conclusions is a big part of the fun of this book.
The Cottingley Cuckoo isn’t perfect, but there are a lot of good things in this book, a lot of mystery and atmosphere, and a lot of possibility. If you’re a fan of fairies and their world it’s definitely a story you should give a try.
The Cottingley Cuckoo is out now from Titan Books.