In Bernie McGill’s debut novel, The Butterfly Cabinet, the story of an innocent life lost on an Irish estate in the 1890s is told from two points of view – the child’s mother, sent to prison at the time, and from her nurse, nearly 70 years later, telling the old secrets for the first time.
Charlotte, 4 years old, only daughter in a family of 8 – or is it 9 – is never good at taking instruction and is punished by being sent to the wardrobe room – a room with no light and little ventilation. A distracted nurse, an absent mother, a tendency towards cruelty and neglect in the family, and before anyone knows what has happened, Charlotte has been left alone in the room for 3 hours. We hear this tale from the viewpoint of Harriet, Charlotte’s mother, in a diary that has been hidden in her antiqute butterfly cabinet. Butterflies, ephemeral and beautiful, were pinned and preserved here to show off their many colours. But by the time the story is told, all the butterflies have long since turned to dust. Just like the memory of Charlotte. We also hear from Nurse Maddie, 70 years later, telling her secrets to Harriet’s grand-daughter Anna.
There is a tangle of secrecy here, surrounding Maddie, Charlotte, Anna and Anna’s husband Conor. But Harriet, however cruel and distant, however unbelievable, is never a mystery. And that is the tragedy in this story, that Harriet has no empathy, she simply cannot imagine herself in another’s place, nor can she imagine why one would want to do so. The book was not harrowing, in the way some stories about children can be, but simply sorrowful. Definitely one for a quieter moment.
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