Summary and book reviews of The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

The Butterfly Cabinet

A Novel

By Bernie McGill

The Butterfly Cabinet
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  • Hardcover: Jul 2011,
    240 pages.
    Paperback: May 2012,
    224 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Maddie McGlade
RESIDENT, ORANMORE NURSING HOME PORTSTEWART, NORTHERN IRELAND
8 SEPTEMBER 1968

Anna. You're the spit of your mother standing there - Florence, God rest her - and you have the light of her sharp wit in your eyes. Give me your hand till I see you better. There's not much change on you, apart from what we both know. Ah, you needn't look at me like that. Sure, why else would you be here? I know by the face of you there's a baby on the way, even if you're not showing. It's an odd thing, isn't it, the way the past has no interest for the young till it comes galloping up on the back of the future. And then they can't get enough of it, peering after it, asking it where it's been. I suppose that's always been the way. I suppose we're none of us interested in the stories of our people till we have children of our own to tell them to.

You couldn't have known it, but you've come on my birthday, of all days. At least, it's the day I call my birthday. When I was born, Daddy went ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How did you feel about the dual-narrator structure of the book? Did you want to hear more from Anna? Were there any other characters whose narration you would have liked to read as well?

  2. What parts of the book took you most by surprise? What were your favorite moments?

  3. Who do you think was the most conflicted character in the book? Why? How about the most tragic?

  4. Maddie said to Anna, "Everyone should have a person in their life to tell them stories of their birth." (p. 7) Who is that person for you? What are some of your favorite stories about you as a child?

  5. Who do you think was the more reliable narrator, Harriet or Maddie? Why?

  6. Harriet describes her parenting philosophy, stating: "It is a kindness to teach them as soon as is possible that ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

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).

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Media Reviews
Booklist

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.

Publishers Weekly

[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.

Marie Claire

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.

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Victorians and their Collections

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...

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