Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Fiction Review: The Butterfly Cabinet

For its September selection, my neighborhood book group chose The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill. I'd never heard of the novel or its author, but when I picked it up from the library and saw the dark sky and Gothic castle on the cover, I figured it would be a good fit for the fall R.I.P. Challenge (Readers Imbibing Peril). It was, and I enjoyed this dark family drama, though it seems I was the only one in our group who did!

In 1968 Ireland, a young woman named Anna visits her old nanny, Maddie McGlade, who mostly brought her up and now resides in a care home, ironically located in the old castle where Maddie first worked as a household servant for Anna's family. She was there--and only a child herself--when Anna's grandmother, Harriet, was pregnant with her mother, Florence. And she was there in 1892 when pregnant Harriet was sent to prison for the death of her daughter, Charlotte. During their visit, Maddie shows Anna something she found in Harriet's old butterfly cabinet (a small chest of tiny drawers where Harriet kept her butterfly collection): a diary that Harriet wrote during her year in prison. The story unfolds gradually, with chapters alternating between Maddie talking to Anna about their lives back then in the 1890's and excerpts from the prison diary written by Harriet. Maddie explains how she started to work at the castle when she was only twelve years old, what it was like for the servants back then, and all about the grandparents and uncles and aunt that Anna never knew, including Harriet's harsh control and punishment of her eight unruly children. In Harriet's chapters, written from prison, Anna (and the reader) learns about Harriet's own childhood, how she met and married her husband, Edward, and their early years together in the castle. Both women also tell the story of that fateful day when Charlotte died, from their own perspectives. In this way, we gradually learn the full story of what happened to Charlotte, plus some long-held family secrets.

The cover was accurate; this is a very dark story about some disturbing events that changed a family forever. Although we know from the beginning that Harriet was convicted of killing her daughter, Charlotte, the details--and all that led up to it--come out gradually, so there is some mild suspense here. Mostly, though, this is a novel of family drama and relationships, looking closely at how the different family members interacted and how the actions of characters affected the family for generations. There is also plenty of historical detail of a wealthy manor house in the 1890's. I was astounded to read in the Author's Note that much of the novel was based on real-life events that occurred in Ireland in 1892. 

I wasn't able to attend our book group discussion due to illness, but I rated the book a 7 out of 10. I heard back later that the average rating in the group was a staggering 3.9 (a low record, I think, for us) and that my 7 brought it up a bit! I wish I could have been there to hear what everyone else disliked so much about it. I suspect that the disturbing subject matter (child abuse) had something to do with it, as well as how unlikable Harriet was. For me, I found the prison diary sections illuminating, as they shed some light onto Harriet's own cold upbringing and her reasons for being so strict with her children (not that it excuses what she did). I'm not normally a big fan of Gothic novels, but this one engaged me and kept me interested, with a few unexpected plot twists. It also helped me that it ended with healing and hope, as Anna--who grew up with Maddie's tender care--expects her own baby soon.

227 pages, Free Press

This book fits in the following 2022 Reading Challenges:


Travel the World in Books - Ireland

R.I.P. Challenge

Fall Into Reading Challenge - Historical Fiction


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  1. This certainly sounds dark and I'm not sure it's the book for me.

    1. I'm guessing that's what the rest of my book group thought. I don't like too dark but this at least showed the family heading in a brighter, more hopeful direction in the present!