The Butterfly Cabinet is a short historical fiction novel but, within 228 pages, Bernie McGill has created an engrossing plot with several surprising twists. The Butterfly Cabinet is inspired by a true story that happened in Ireland in 1892.
The story is told from two points of view: Firstly, Maddie McGlade, who became a servant to the affluent Ormond family at Oranmore Castle, Ireland, at the age of 14, and, secondly, the mistress of the castle, Harriet Ormond. Maddie narrates her portion of the novel, while Harriet’s diary comprises the second point of view.
Maddie, who became known as Nanny Madd to the grandchildren of Harriet Ormond, is 92 years old and dying in a nursing home which, ironically, is the Oranmore Castle converted into an old age residence. She tells her story to Anna, Harriet’s granddaughter, who, after several years, is ready to hear her family history. Maddie speaks in the local vernacular which, at times, may be a bit tough to comprehend.
The time period fluctuates between 1968, when Maddie is revealing her recollections to Anna, and Harriet’s diary of 1892-1893.
Harriet is a harsh disciplinarian to her 9 children, as well as the servants. Eventually, her punishment of her only daughter leads to tragic consequences, for which Harriet is jailed for one year. Pregnant when she is incarcerated, she gives birth to a girl, Anna’s mother, who is taken away by her husband within 3 days. Her diary is written during her imprisonment.
Harriet is an avid butterfly collector and possesses a cabinet in which she collects specimens. As decades pass, the butterfly cabinet eventually is passed down to Maddie. Inside she finds a diary, a diary no other person is aware of: Harriet’s.
The Butterfly Cabinet is a tragic story in many ways, yet manages to imbue the characters with unique quirks and thought processes which enables the reader to understand why a character acts in a particular fashion, even though their deeds may be repulsive.
It is also a convoluted history of the intertwining of the lives of servants and masters and mistresses.
It is difficult to write a review of The Butterfly Cabinet without including spoilers, which is the last thing I want to do. What I really want is for you to pick up this book. I lost sleep reading this book. It was difficult to put down.
Rating: 4 stars **** (excellent)
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