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Book Review: The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill

27 Jul

Genre: Literary fiction

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Free Press)

Pub date: 26 July 2011

Source: Simon & Schuster GalleyGrab

(I do wish the Galley Grab e-galleys had longer validity – it’s very hard to remember all the details of the story weeks after having read them.)


When Anna decides to drop in on her old Nanny Maddie, it is a time for old secrets to finally be revealed. Maddie tells Anna about the day in the Ormond’s house when a four-year-old girl dies and her mother Harriet is accused of killing her. Maddie was part of the staff in this huge house. Harriet was a stiff and uncompromising woman who struggled with her role as mother and mistress of the Irish estate. We get to know more about Harriet from her diaries, and get more insight into these women and the truth of what happened on that sad day.


Inspired by real events and set against the backdrop of some defining moments in Irish history, The Butterfly Cabinet is a powerful, complex tale of parental cruelty and guilt that is carried over many decades. In The Butterfly Cabinet, the stories of two women – Maddie and Harriet come together, hinging on that one day when Charlotte, Harriet Ormond’s only daughter dies.

Some people are obviously not meant to be parents – they prefer the solitude of their own company and have no patience with the stubbornness of children. Harriet is cold, rigid and cruel not only to the staff but also her children often crossing the line from discipline to torture.

There are parallels drawn between the butterfly cabinet (which was Harriet’s most prized possession)  and her attitude to her children and household. Sometimes Harriet’s gentleness for these winged creatures seems more genuine that her dutiful approach to motherhood. But ironically, the only way she enjoys these butterflies is not by seeing them flitting around freely, but dead and pinned onto a board and stuffed into a cupboard that no one else gets to touch or see.

Maddie was a young girl who was a servant in this huge house on a remote estate in Ireland. A witness to many cruelties perpetuated in the children, Maddie would comfort the children, especially Charlotte, in secret, as Harriet did not allow her staff to interfere with her children.

When Harriet’s young daughter Charlotte is found dead, Harriet is accused of killing her. She doesn’t say anything to defend herself, and the statements that her staff, friends and family give in court is utterly damning. But it is clear right from the beginning that the court and the rest of the world doesn’t know the entire truth.

Initially, I hated Harriet, but on reading her diaries, the harsh and cruel Harriet surprisingly starts to become someone I could sympathize with. As more of the story is revealed through Maddie’s narration to Anne and Harriet’s diaries, the black and white run into each other and a lot of grey appears. This brilliantly written haunting story is about secrets being revealed, and about parenting gone horribly wrong, but surprisingly, it is Harriet who will stay with me. A complex character, she unfortunately finds peace and her voice only in the horrific days of her imprisonment.


Highly recommended for fans of literary fiction. Also a great choice for book clubs as there is a lot to be discussed.

Rating: 4.5*

*See my Rating policy

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