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.
I know there are many readers like me out there who will gobble up any story about a stately Victorian household with plenty of upstairs/downstairs class tension. I've tasted books like The Butterfly Cabinet before, and I still find them as alluring as toast and tea - good enough to be a regular part of the diet.... There are intriguing characters on both sides of the divide in Bernie McGill's Oranmore house, and the story provides readers the Victoriana they crave; there is social conservatism and florid wallpaper, there are shocking, outmoded ideas about child rearing. There are corsets. (Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).
The intertwining of the family's woes and those of the staff, leading to a future neither could have foreseen, is played out against a backdrop of political and cultural upheaval. Chilling and gripping.
[A]n exquisite series of painful revelations… a powder keg of domestic suspense that threatens to explode as long-kept secrets surrounding Charlotte's death are teased out.
Financial Times (UK)
Intricately layered... McGill'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.
The Guardian (UK)
The decades of complicity that follow Charlotte's death unfold with forceful drama, marred only by a tendency towards Irish sentimentality.
An utterly compelling tale of hidden secrets and culture clashes... Pitch-perfect in tone, McGill captures, in counterpoint, the voices of the two women as they declaim a melancholy murder ballad.
Good Housekeeping (UK)
A dramatic and haunting novel.... [T]his is an enthralling and beautifully written debut.
The Butterfly Cabinet opens with an aged nanny showing her grown-up charge an heirloom curiosity.
"It's your grandmother's butterfly cabinet: I've had it these years. The keeper of secrets, the mistress's treasure. Ebony, I think it is, very solid: four big balled feet on it... Twelve tiny drawers, every one with its own small wooden knob. None of us was allowed to go near it; it was the one thing in the house that the mistress saw to herself. I'll never solve the problem of her: what's the point of keeping a dead thing?"
The Victorians were rabid in their zeal for collecting things from the natural world, living or dead. (Indeed, the natural history museums of the world owe many of their specimens to Victorian collectors.) Birds, fossils, seashells, and rocks all had their enthusiasts. Collecting ferns was such a huge fad it had its own term, pteridomania.
From the award-winning author of The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre and The Beautiful Miscellaneous comes a sweeping historical novel set amid the skyscrapers of 1890s Chicago and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.
Research shows that 90% of Americans value public libraries(Dec 11 2013) According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, about 90% of Americans aged 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an...