Friday, August 12, 2011

The Butterfly Cabinet

by Bernie McGill
New York, Free Press, 2011
227 pages     Fiction

Where do I begin to reflect on the ingenious book, The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill? Ah—by its inspiration. McGill lives on the north coast of Northern Ireland, near the Cromore House, the inspiration for the novel. In 1892, a 4-year-old girl was found asphyxiated in the wardrobe of the house, and her mother was found guilty of her death and served a short term in prison where she gave birth to another daughter.

With these basic facts, McGill weaves a story that is as evocative of Northern Ireland as it is of the tragedy that transpired there. The narration alternates between the words of Maddie, who had been a housemaid in the house, and the diaries from prison of the mother, Harriet. When Maddie decides she must tell someone her version of what happened, it is the late 1960s, and she is in her mid-90s. She relates the tale to Harriet’s granddaughter Anna and her husband Conor. As one reviewer mentions, “The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement.”

Maddie’s point of view comes from her background as a child of rural Ireland. Taken into the household as a young teenager, she is in effect raised by the household’s staff. Compassionate and impressionable, her eyes take it all in, but the decisions she makes during those fateful days are those of a young girl. She remains in the employ of Anna’s mother until she returns to Cromore House as an old woman; the house has been converted to a retirement home. It is with the wisdom of old age that she is able to confront the circumstances of the death of Charlotte.

Harriet comes from an upper class Scottish family, marries Edward and moves to Ireland, and within 12 years has given birth to several sons and one daughter. Overwhelmed by parenting, she finds solace in riding horses and collecting butterflies, which she kills and mounts on shelves in a butterfly cabinet. She is free of restraints when she rides her horses and she is very much in control when she collects her butterflies. She says, “The end result is magnificent: I wish the catching of them could be more dignified.”

The history of Ireland in the late 1800s, the revolutionary changes of the 1960s, and the customs, legends, and characteristics of life by the sea are woven into the fabric of the novel. Everyone is close to the land, and McGill knows enough Irish lore to have her characters evoke the spirit of the setting as well as its physical characteristics. At one point Maddie says of Irish stories, “That’s what we do: tell made-up stories to fend off the night, to put off telling the truth.”

At the same time that we are imbued with the spirit of the place, we are led to feel compassion for the family and the staff, caught as they are in their circumstances. And surprisingly, we even feel compassion for Harriet as we begin to understand what brought her to the place where she felt she must shut Charlotte in the cabinet for soiling her clothes. She feels there is no way to deal with her many children except through punishment; they are just so naughty. "How are they ever to learn the effects of their thoughtlessness," she writes, "if not by punishment?"

I recently met up with an acquaintance that I hadn’t seen for many years. As mothers are wont to do, we caught up on the whereabouts of our offspring. My friend is one of the most rigid women I have ever known, and her childrearing was harsh and unyielding. Only one of her four daughters lives anywhere near her, and she hasn’t seen that daughter or her grandchild for several years. They are completely estranged because “she knows I don’t approve of her lifestyle.” It was an incredibly sad moment for me because I knew that daughter to be a lovely girl who grew up struggling to comply with arbitrary and debilitating rules. All the time I was reading about Harriet in The Butterfly Cabinet, I was remembering my friend and the pain she must live with every day. They are very similar women.

The theme of The Butterfly Cabinet comes in one of Harriet’s diary entries:  “Death is so very straightforward when compared with the complexities of living.” Scattered throughout the book are bits of wisdom that  helps us understand motivation even as it inspires us with the creativity of the author. As I read the book, I could imagine McGill pondering the events of 1892 every time she walked on the shoreline, gazing up at that home. What really went on there?

The Butterfly Cabinet came to me as part of a blog tour from The Free Press. Many other people have written about the book as part of the tour. I can highly recommend it.

Bernie McGill’s website:

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