Tuesday, August 09, 2011 Posted by Dina N
Vivid, mysterious and unforgettable, The Butterfly Cabinet is Bernie McGill's engrossing portrayal of the dark history that intertwines two lives. Inspired by a true story of the death of the daughter of an aristocratic Irish family at the end of the nineteenth century, McGill powerfully tells this tale of two women whose lives will become upended by a newly told secret.
The events begin when Maddie McGlade, a former nanny now in her nineties, receives a letter from the last of her charges and realizes that the time has come to unburden herself of a secret she has kept for over seventy years: what really happened on the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond, the four-year-old only daughter of the big house where Maddie was employed as a young woman. It is to Charlotte's would-be niece, Anna — pregnant with her first — that Maddie will tell her story as she nears the end of her life in a lonely nursing home in Northern Ireland.
The book unfolds in chapters that alternate between Maddie's story and the prison diaries of Charlotte's mother, Harriet, who had been held responsible for her daughter's death. As Maddie confesses the truth to Anna, she unravels the Ormonds' complex family history, and also details her own life, marked by poverty, fear, sacrifice and lies. In stark contrast to Maddie is the misunderstood, haughty and yet surprisingly lyrical voice of Harriet's prison diaries, which Maddie has kept hidden for decades. Motherhood came no more easily to Harriet than did her role as mistress of a far-flung Irish estate. Proud and uncompromising, she is passionate about riding horses and collecting butterflies to store in her prized cabinet. When her only daughter, Charlotte, dies, allegedly as the result of Harriet's punitive actions, the community is quick to condemn her and send her to prison for the killing. Unwilling to stoop to defend herself and too absorbed in her own world of strict rules and repressed desires, she accepts the cruel destiny that is beyond her control even as, paradoxically, it sets her free.
The result of this unusual duet is a haunting novel full of frightening silences and sorrowful absences that build toward the unexpected, chilling truth.
The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill is a beautifully written book that stays in my thoughts long after I've read it. Based on a true story about the death of a 4-year girl, it's a novel about parenting, passions, guilt, love, loss, truth and punishment. I will not retell the story because the book description does a wonderful job on that.
The story spans over eight decades and is told in two voices: that of the elderly Maddie, former servant to the family, and of Harriet, the dead girl's mother, who writes a diary while in prison. Maddie shares her memories with the daughter of the child Harriet gives birth to while in prison. The events in the book take place against the background of a changing Ireland, with its complex political, religious and class divisions. The narrative is multi-layered, gradually revealing characters and events. Maddie, a keeper of secrets for decades, uncovers them in fragments. What at first seems to be an indisputable truth - a child dies as a consequence of her mother's disciplinary methods - becomes more nuanced as the story continues.
The Butterfly Cabinet was published in July by Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster.
Disclaimer / Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of the book with no obligation for a positive review. No compensation - monetary or in kind - has been obtained for this post. Cover art and book description courtesy of the author, publisher or PR firm.