By Bernie McGill
Free Pres Publishers, $22.99
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 Butterfly Cabinet is based on real events that took place in Ireland in 1982. Author Bernie McGill has chosen to tell this story of child abuse and the subsequent death of a four year old child through the nanny many years later and the diaries of the imprisoned mother.
I think the word "haunting" is often overused by those of us who talk about books we've read, however in The Butterfly Cabinet, I think it's the perfect word. The reader is haunted by the words and actions of Harriet, the mother. It's easy to see here that this is one person who should never have been a mother, but yet, had many children and was pregnant when sent to prison. Harriett struggled with herself and her need to control little Charlotte. Control beyond the usual punishment. Maddie, the other story teller, was a young maid who also served as a nanny in the home and tells her story as an old woman now in the nursing home that the old family home has become.
It took me quite a while to become emotionally involved in this book. While I found the writing style engaging and the story itself was something that I was intrigued with, it took a very long time for me to care about any of the characters other than the poor asphyxiated child, Charlotte.
By the end of this compelling story, I did appreciate the journey, the characters and the manner in which McGill shares the tales of these people. We learn that people struggled with the same emotional problems then, that we struggle with now.
While I finished The Butterfly Cabinet a few days ago, I am still "haunted" by the wasted lives of so many people. I do recommend The Butterfly Cabinet and encourage you to read it. Appreciate the author's well structured plot and story lines, and just go on and let the book haunt you. It's worth the effort.
I give this 4 out of 5 stars.
This review copy was provided to me by the publishers in exchange for an honest review and in no way affected my review.