The Butterfly Cabinet
By Bernie McGill
(Free Press, Hardcover, 9781451611595, 240pp.)
Publication Date: July 26, 2011
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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.
?eoeAn utterly compelling tale of hidden secrets and culture clashes played out against the backdrop of a large country house in Northern Ireland . . . a haunted tale, eerie with recrimination, illicit passion and frustrated motherhood . . . Pitch-perfect in tone, McGill captures, in counterpoint, the voices of the two women as they declaim a melancholy murder ballad.?e
My novel [of the year] would probably be?The Butterfly Cabinet?by Bernie McGill, which is based, I think, on a true story, about the darkness inside all of us, and how politeness and education will not always prevent us hurting even those who need us most. McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor.
-Julian Fellowes, actor, novelist, and creator of?Downton Abbey
?eoeA dramatic and haunting novel that tells the tale of two women whose lives are linked by an appalling tragedy. Inspired in part by the true story of events surrounding the death of the daughter of an aristocratic family in Ireland in the late 19th century, this is an enthralling and beautifully written debut.?e
?e"Good Housekeeping (UK)
?eoeIntricately layered . . . McGill?e(TM)s assured debut is an intense exploration of maternal love and guilt. What also distinguishes it is its delicate portrait of a society that, within one life-time, would face unimaginable change.?e
?eoeAn absorbing story of marriage, motherhood and murder.?e
?e"Woman & Home
?eoeA fantastic novel. It drenches us in gothic sensibilities as it haunts us.?e ?e"USAToday.com
?eoe?e?an exquisite series of painful revelations?e? McGill easily recreates the lives of the Castle's owners and servants and the intricate connections between them. As both Harriet and Maddie's stories emerge, the tale becomes a powder keg of domestic suspense that threatens to explode as long-kept secrets surrounding Charlotte's death are teased out.?e
"[B]eautiful and languorous and wild?e? in the end, we are caught and held tight.?e ?e"The Huffington Post
?eoeA haunting, often lyrical tale of quiet, mesmerizing power about the dangerous borders of maternal love.?e
?e" Rachel Hore, author of The Glass Painter?e(TM)s Daughter
?eoeMcGill?e(TM)s rare, hypnotic gift for writing fills every page. The substance of her tale explores class, religion, politics and everyday life in upper class Ulster towards the latter end of the 19th century and brings us well into the twentieth. It has the best non-salacious description of sex from a woman?e(TM)s point of view that I have ever come across and contains no end of sentences you want to remember.?e
?e"Eugene McCabe, author of Death and Nightingales
?eoeAn emotionally bracing, refreshingly intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking story.?e
?eoeA kind of gothic Upstairs! Downstairs . . . Chilling and gripping.?e
"[C]ompelling ?e? a densely textured plot. The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement?e? While The Butterfly Cabinet is an intense exploration of maternal failure and a haunting illumination of cruelty and guilt, it also plays out against an authentic backdrop of defining moments in Irish history.?e ?e"Minneapolis Star Tribune