Once I picked up 'The Butterfly Cabinet', by Bernie McGill, I could not stop reading it. I finished it in one day, which is not an easy feat with all that I have to do everyday! Though it was published in 2010 by Free Press, I only just found it last week on my library shelves. I am very glad that I did.
McGill has woven a haunting tale of fiction out of a real-life tragedy that took place over a century ago in Ireland. She cleverly moves the story along by using the voice of a nineteenth century mother convicted of murdering her child, interspersed every other chapter with the voice of a now elderly former servant of the house, in the 1960's. The reader is allowed a glimpse into the life of a Victorian great house, from the perspective of both the privileged mistress and that of a teenage maid-servant. History buffs will relish the everyday details of life in the 1890's.
The tale gets quite dark at times. Any parent that has ever struggled to deal with a willful child will relate to the mother's despair of ever teaching her children to behave. The anguish and remorse she feels after her daughter's accidental death will make you cry even while you are repelled by her actions. As an observer to the drama, the reader can see that this young mother was really overwhelmed and lacked a role model in her own life of a loving maternal figure.
No one in the story emerges unscathed after the death of little Charlotte. Servants and family members struggle with guilt. It seems everyone knew that something was going wrong in the house, but most were powerless to do much to intervene. It is truly a story that makes you realize that many of the ills that our culture suffers from today, have long been part of society. It made me wish that I could reach through the pages to offer help.
I devoured this book, so eager was I to get to the end and 'solve' the mystery of what really happened to the little girl. In that, McGill leaves the reader guessing, but with enough clues that a probable ending can be pieced together. This book left me saddened for the characters that I felt like I had come to know. I will definitely be on the lookout for more novels by Bernie McGill.