Thursday, June 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

My niece suggested that I read The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill. We enjoy a lot of the same books, so I decided to give this one a try.

It seemed a strange coincidence that it is set primarily at the end of the nineteenth century in northern Ireland. The historical and political events in the background overlap those of my recent mammoth read, Trinity by Leon Uris. The central character in this book, Harriet Ormond, is also a member of a Catholic family but a wealthy, aristocratic one, which I wouldn’t have thought possible after reading Trinity. However, in this book, the politics are barely a backdrop. They’re there to give the story some context and shape, but never emerge as part of the story. The people in this book are aware of the great goings-on in the world but are not much touched by them. The tragedies here are played out on a smaller, personal scale. But make no mistake--this is a tragic book!

The story centers on the death of a four-year-old child, Charlotte Ormond, who died as a result of a punishment inflicted by her mother. Charlotte was locked in a wardrobe closet, tied up with a stocking that became tangled around her neck so that she was asphyxiated. Her mother, Harriet Ormond, was found guilty of causing the death and sentenced to a year in prison for the crime.

There are two voices in this novel, speaking in alternating chapters. Each circles around the events of the fateful day of Charlotte’s death until the final, telling details are exposed. Harriet’s own voice is one, told in the form of a diary written while in prison. We learn that Harriet is haughty and cold, having learned from an early age to repress her emotions. Her passion is given over to butterfly collecting and to horses—odd behaviors for a woman, which increase her isolation.

The second narrator is a servant of the family, Maddie McGlade. She was fifteen years old at the time of the murder, but her "voice" speaks much later. Generous, kind-hearted, innocent, Maddie carries secrets throughout her life that burden her with guilt. When she is in her nineties, she finally speaks out, revealing what she knows about Charlotte’s death

Everything was more complicated than it appeared on the surface.

This is a beautifully written book. Each of the women has a painful story to tell. It’s a difficult book to read because so many layers of unhappiness are revealed with each new piece of the puzzle. Although enough hints are dropped that the reader is likely to figure out Maddie’s secret before the big reveal, the plot is nevertheless complex enough to keep the story compelling to the end. Most importantly, it seemed a realistic portrayal of a damaged woman, struggling against her circumstances, leading to a tragic outcome.

This is my 12th Historical Fiction Challenge book. The challenge is hosted by Historical Tapestries.