Wednesday, July 27th, 2011
The Short Take:
This dark tale about the accidental death of a child and how how it impacts the lives of two women — the mother and the maid — is beautifully wrapped in Irish culture. And, McGill’s elegant prose smoothly adapts to the two unique voices of her protagonists.
In 1892 Ireland, Harriet, the mother, and Maddie, the maid may occupy the same house but they are worlds apart. Class, religion, and position create a great divide. Yet for both of them, their actions and attitudes are driven by passions suppressed by their circumstances.
Harriet is not presented as a sympathetic character. Her discipline of her children is extreme even for the times. She comes across as unyielding and unimaginative. But as her story unfolds you begin to understand, and appreciate, who she is.
Maddie, who feels like such an innocent at first, is the one with secrets and betrayals. And, it is when she lets her passion show that each slip takes place.
Harriet’s tale is revealed through a diary she keeps while in jail for the death of her young daughter. Maddie tells her story in person to Harriet’s granddaughter — the last child she was nanny to. Interestingly — and telling — the two women’s narratives are intricately intertwined,even though they had virtually no interaction.
There is an actual butterfly cabinet. Harriet collects them. Its symbolism is exceptionally revealing, for both women.
A Little Plot:
To keep her family from starving,Maddie goes to work for the aristocrats in the castle. Harriet, the mistress of the big house, has numerous children and sees it as her duty to discipline them however necessary to break their wild spirits and civilize them.
Her methods lead to the death of her young daughter, and she is tried and convicted for murder.
But there’s far more to this sad tale than you’d think. And, that is the story McGill unspools so hauntingly.
For more about Bernie McGill and her work, click here.