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The Butterfly Cabinet: A Novel Hardcover – July 26, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 61 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“An utterly compelling tale of hidden secrets and culture clashes played out against the backdrop of a large country house in Northern Ireland . . . a haunted tale, eerie with recrimination, illicit passion and frustrated motherhood . . . Pitch-perfect in tone, McGill captures, in counterpoint, the voices of the two women as they declaim a melancholy murder ballad.”
Marie Claire 

My novel [of the year] would probably be The Butterfly Cabinet by Bernie McGill, which is based, I think, on a true story, about the darkness inside all of us, and how politeness and education will not always prevent us hurting even those who need us most. McGill has the ability to enter into the brain and heart of her characters and so to make us sympathise with people who commit acts we abhor. (Julian Fellowes, actor, novelist, and creator of Downton Abbey The Guardian)

“A dramatic and haunting novel that tells the tale of two women whose lives are linked by an appalling tragedy. Inspired in part by the true story of events surrounding the death of the daughter of an aristocratic family in Ireland in the late 19th century, this is an enthralling and beautifully written debut.”
Good Housekeeping (UK)

“Intricately layered . . . McGill’s assured debut is an intense exploration of maternal love and guilt. What also distinguishes it is its delicate portrait of a society that, within one life-time, would face unimaginable change.”
Financial Times

“An absorbing story of marriage, motherhood and murder.”
Woman & Home

“A fantastic novel. It drenches us in gothic sensibilities as it haunts us.”—USAToday.com

“…an exquisite series of painful revelations… McGill easily recreates the lives of the Castle's owners and servants and the intricate connections between them. As both Harriet and Maddie's stories emerge, the tale becomes a powder keg of domestic suspense that threatens to explode as long-kept secrets surrounding Charlotte's death are teased out.”
—Publishers Weekly

"[B]eautiful and languorous and wild…  in the end, we are caught and held tight.” —The Huffington Post

“A haunting, often lyrical tale of quiet, mesmerizing power about the dangerous borders of maternal love.”
— Rachel Hore, author of The Glass Painter’s Daughter

“McGill’s rare, hypnotic gift for writing fills every page. The substance of her tale explores class, religion, politics and everyday life in upper class Ulster towards the latter end of the 19th century and brings us well into the twentieth. It has the best non-salacious description of sex from a woman’s point of view that I have ever come across and contains no end of sentences you want to remember.”
—Eugene McCabe, author of Death and Nightingales

“An emotionally bracing, refreshingly intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking story.”
–Kirkus Reviews

“A kind of gothic Upstairs! Downstairs . . . Chilling and gripping.”

"[C]ompelling … a densely textured plot. The interplay of the voices of two exceptionally different personalities is perhaps the book's major achievement… While The Butterfly Cabinet is an intense exploration of maternal failure and a haunting illumination of cruelty and guilt, it also plays out against an authentic backdrop of defining moments in Irish history.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

About the Author

Bernie McGill was born in Northern Ireland in 1967, the youngest of ten children. In 2008 her story “Sleepwalkers” won the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest. She has also written numerous works for print and radio. She lives with her family in Portstewart, Ireland, site of the real-life events which inspired her novel. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Free Press Hardcover edition (July 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451611595
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451611595
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,910,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
What a haunting tale. This sad story is told in two voices; that of a nanny who used to work in the household and through the diaries of the mother of a child who died at the hands of her punishment. Harriet, the mother, is a woman who really never should have never had children and is married to man who is half a child himself. A product of their times, their status and their religion Harriet has a baby just about every year. She is shocked both that she enjoys what goes into creating the children and at their behavior. She wants them to be perfect. After a string of boys she has Charlotte who is completely contrary and does not behave as they boys have done.

The tale alternates between nanny Maddie's explanation in current times and the prison diaries that Harriet wrote after being convicted of causing Charlotte's death. Nanny Maddie is a soft and cuddly character and Harriet is cold and unforgiving. And yet Ms. McGill allows through her writing - even though I really didn't want it to happen - for a certain sympathy to arise for Harriet. I truly wanted to hate her but I couldn't. She had miserable parents and a husband who did nothing to help. He was afraid of her. She left me very conflicted. She was basically a serial child abuser! The writing is exceptional, the characters are fascinating. It's a book I will keep to read again. They are few and far between for me with all of the books that I read.

The Butterfly Cabinet is not a happy story but I find myself thinking about it even now - a week after I finished reading it. The characters stay with you. The ending is a perfect weaving together of past and present.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This heart-grabber of a first novel was "inspired by" actual events that took place on the north coast of Ireland in 1892, where a prominent and wealthy woman, who had tied up her "misbehaving" young daughter and locked her in a dark and windowless wardrobe room for three hours, was convicted of murder and sent to prison after the child was found dead of asphyxia. In Bernie McGill's fictional version, also set in northern Ireland in 1892, there is a secret that adds a whole new dimension to the story--but a secret that will not be revealed for another 76 years.

Two first-person narrators tell the tale in alternating chapters.

Harriet Ormand--the dedicated butterfly collector, equestrian and empathy-challenged mother of nine who hadn't a maternal bone in her body--speaks from the year 1892 via the prison diary she kept and later secreted away in her butterfly cabinet, which eventually got passed down to her former housemaid, Maddie.

Here's Harriet on a mother's duty:
"My mother did teach me an important lesson. She taught me the importance of armor. She taught me how to construct my own impenetrable cocoon. She taught me how to protect the spirit. She taught me how to hide within myself. I have tried to teach that same lesson to my children, but they have always been stronger than me. If I am guilty of failing to do my duty as a mother then it is in this: I have not succeeded in teaching them how to safeguard themselves from love."


Maddie McGlade--the teenage Ormand family housemaid who would later become nanny to Harriet's granddaughter Anna, speaks from the year 1968.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an absolute jewel of a book, though the subject matter is difficult at times.
Two women, whose lives are intertwined for decades, reveal hidden things from
the past.
In the late 1800s, Harriet, the wife of an affluent man and the mistress of a large estate, writes from
her prison cell where she's serving a one-year sentence for the death of her four-year
old daughter.
Maddie, from a retirement home in the 1960s, is telling the story to a young woman whom has
known Maddie her entire life, and Maddie was her nanny.
I can't say much without revealing what needs to be left for you to discover, so I'll just say that
this book is so beautifully written, and is based on an actual case that took place in Ireland.
A book about sins of commission and sins of omission.
Do yourself a favor!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is very well written and the author is quite eloquent. This is not a spoiler, since the jacket of the book gives away this detail: the story involves the death of a small child in a gruesome fashion. What is even creepier is the fact that the story is based on actual events. That being said, the author did a great job transporting you to an Ulster, in the 1890s, when landlordism was still the norm. This story bounces back and forth, between this time period, and the 1960s. The political events and atmospheres of the times are touched upon, without the reader feeling like the events are being dictated. You are given insights into the popular mentalities and mind sets of people from very different social spheres and cultural rearings. These details combined with the fact that the story itself is quite interesting, with a twist here and there, makes for a very good read. So, yes, the fact that a child is killed in this story is awful and sends a chill down your spine; on the other hand, the story is so well written with such descriptive eloquence, that I would still highly recommend it.
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