Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

A quirky mixed bag of love, loss and epistolary intrigue

Central to the story in Niamh Greene's Coco's Secret is the original IT bag. Long before The Kelly, The Birkin and The Bayswater, Chanel designed the classic 2.55 with its resplendent burgundy kid interior and secret lining for love letters.

It was so called because it was launched in February 1955 and remains a style staple to this day; much copied, never surpassed.

At a country auction, buried in a box of bric à brac, a vintage version of the bag comes into the hands of antique dealer, Coco Swan.

The mousy young woman is painfully aware that her name doesn't resonate with that of the talented and notoriously elegant French designer.

Her mother, who loved bohemian Paris, bestowed Chanel's name on her daughter and promptly died when Coco was only 13, leaving her in the care of her glamorous grandmother, Ruth.

The two women live together over an antiques shop, in a typically rural Irish village, where the local butcher pays clandestine visits to Ruth's bed chamber.

Coco's friend, Cat, provides the girlie dialogue and sub-plot of busy working mum with twins and a troubled adolescent son providing the murky drug side-show.

Neither the reader nor Coco ever get to know her father, and strangely there is no suggestion that she is interested in finding him, we don't know if he was Irish or French, married, or just feckless.

Coco does, however, commence a search for the owner of the bag after she finds a poignant love letter concealed in the lining. Her detective work takes her to Dublin, London and, fatefully, to another small Irish village where she meets the handsome Mac Gilmartin.

This dashing charmer has a dog sanctuary and, yes, he is the sort of man who could melt a woman's heart.

Niamh Greene has fashioned a simple detective tale that is both a voyage of discovery for Coco Swan and a contemporary perspective on topical issues, such as adoption in the 1950s and single motherhood then and now.

Coco's aunt Anna acts as the foil for the good-humoured life in the antique shop and channels much of the small town hypocrisy.

Does the story of the Chanel bag, imbued with decades of love, pain and adventure, bring Coco any closer to her mother, or any closer to finding love?

Well, you'll just have to lose yourself in this pacy tale to find out.

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