Book review: The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

The death of an upper class couple’s young daughter rocks Victorian society... particularly when her mother is implicated in the tragedy.

Monday, 11th July 2011, 7:00 am

But there are always two sides to a story and, in this case, the child’

s nanny harbours a shocking secret that will take 70 years to unravel.

Bernie McGill’s haunting debut novel, inspired by real events, is a thing of beauty – powerful storytelling wrapped in layers of lyrical prose, intrigue and universal themes like motherhood, obsession and death.

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Set in Northern Ireland, the narrative weaves between the 19th and 20th centuries and follows the alternating accounts of Harriet Ormond, mother of four-year-old Charlotte, and Maddie McGlade, a former nanny at the ‘big house’ near Portstewart.

As the past slowly blends into the present, the hidden truths that ripped apart a family start to become painfully clear...

When Anna, the young woman she cared for as a child, announces her intention to visit elderly Maddie McGlade, the former nanny realises that this is her last chance to unburden herself of a story that has gnawed at her for decades.

For Maddie, rather like the butterfly cabinet she keeps safely under lock and key, has for too long guarded a secret about the day four-year- old Charlotte Ormond died.

Finally, Maddie knows that Harriet’s granddaughter Anna is ready to hear what really happened at the ‘big house’ and as the old lady’s mind drifts back through the years, the story of Charlotte’s mother, Harriet Ormond, begins to take shape.

A proud, uncompromising woman, Harriet liked her servants, including Maddie, to keep their noses out of the affairs of their ‘betters.’

Her great passion was collecting butterflies and pinning them under glass, a pastime she much preferred to her roles as mother of a large family and mistress of her remote Irish estate.

When Charlotte died in mysterious circumstances, the local community was quick to judge her and Harriet would not stoop to defend herself, even if it meant going to prison.

But her journals reveal a more complex truth, not just about Charlotte’

s death but also about Harriet’s own childhood...

McGill’s carefully crafted story opens up a sequence of unanswered questions and as we peer into the darkest corners of each woman’s heart, the answers are revealed in an emotional and page-turning journey into the past.

Compelling and multi-layered, The Butterfly Cabinet is an unforgettable debut.

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)