The Cottingley Cuckoo by A.J. Elwood
Titan, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
When Rose takes a job at Sunnyside Care Home, it’s not long-term. It’s just a stop-over supporting herself and her boyfriend after university didn’t work out. One of the residents, Charlotte Favell, asks Rose to read to her. Just one letter every day, but combined these letters reveal a claim that Charlotte’s father-in-law and her daughter found real fairies in their garden. Then Rose discovers she’s pregnant, and her stop-over job may need to be longer-term to support her growing family. The fairy letters taking a sinister turn, and Rose begins to harbour dark thoughts there is something wrong with her baby. Is Rose suffering from mental illness bought on by the sudden impact of motherhood, or is there something else at play?
The Cottingley fairies are a series of pictures taken by young photographers at the beginning of the 20th Century, famously used by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to illustrate an article he had written. The pictures divided public opinion but have remained in the imagination, and any reference to them is instantly recognisable. In The Cottingley Cuckoo, Rose reads letters that insist the fairies are real, and the letters’ author has indisputable proof.
The story is told in two parts. The first is Rose’s present-day dissatisfaction with her current life, her boyfriend, her job and workmates. The second is the letters Charlotte Favell asks her to read. Elwood adopts a literary style of writing across both story threads that suits the letters and works well for Rose’s mental decline when she discovers she’s pregnant. Unfortunately, I don’t enjoy stories written in this style. The style distances me from the action, so I don’t engage on an emotional level. I can, however, appreciate Elwood’s story; it just doesn’t bowl me over, especially with the ambiguous ending. It just didn’t work for me.
Another issue I had with the story is Rose herself. We don’t get much of her background other than she loves books and has completed one year at university before leaving. As there is so much we don’t know, it’s hard to empathise with her. She comes across poorly when the other care home staff make overtures of friends, but she keeps shutting them down. Rose never feels like a real person, and her decisions are often hard to understand without more context about her past.
This isn’t to say The Cottingley Cuckoo doesn’t have some merits. It is a brave story tackling a difficult part of motherhood that isn’t often talked about. Not every pregnancy is a joy, and not every expectant mother will naturally fall into their new nurturing role. Pregnancy can cause depression and fear for the future in some women, just as it can cause satisfaction and happiness in others. While I may not enjoy the literary style of writing, as I have said, I can appreciate why it was used in this story.