Recommended Reads: The Butterfly Cabinet

This week’s Recommended Read comes from Patricia Canning, our Belfast-based Project Worker, who has found powerful similarities to the experiences of Get Into Reading groups in Bernie McGill’s challenging and beautiful The Butterfly Cabinet.

They are honest insects, butterflies. They may get one’s attention with spots and swirls, great flourishes of colour, displays of dazzling brilliance. One does not have to look all that closely, however, to see how fragile that beauty is, how it is held together by the worm that it once was, and will be again.’

This beautifully written book tells of loss, life, love and something approximating love. Set in the north of Ireland in the 1800’s, the story is made up of parts of a fractured whole, brought together through its varied ‘tellings’, its diverse time-zones, its different authors. There is Maddie, speaking to a different generation from her place in a nursing home of her time as a servant in ‘the Castle’. Then there is her Mistress, Harriet, who, despite being the authoritative voice of the castle, struggles with parental authority, particularly in instilling respect and discipline in her children. Trying to teach them ‘lessons’, Harriet takes to locking them in the ‘wardrobe room’ for a time, a windowless room with nothing to do but think – a harsh precursor of ‘time-out’. It is in this room, during a period of thinking on the crime that has warranted the punishment, that her young daughter, Charlotte, tragically dies. We learn of Harriet’s story through the pages of a diary she kept during her incarceration in prison for Charlotte’s murder, but it reappears constantly in the telling of Maddie’s story to Harriet’s grandchild, Anna. ‘It’s an odd thing, isn’t it’, says Maddie, ‘the way the past has no interest for the young till it comes galloping up on the back of the future.’

I read with women at a Belfast prison every Wednesday. There was recently some fascination with a dull humming sound coming from high up in our reading room, which turned out to be a wasp. A really big wasp. It was tired, presumably locked in, a prisoner itself, but faring poorly in its unnatural surroundings. We were wondering, quite selfishly, if it had any fight left, whether it would sting us or not. Despite its intimidating size, it was not interested in us. It merely wanted freedom, and every ounce of its strength went into fighting that battle at a window that will never open. From her own prison cell, Harriet remembers her butterfly collection, her caged little bits of ‘sky’.

‘How hard the smallest of creatures will try for life. Constantly under threat, they devise new methods for survival. Everything they do is for the continuation of the species: to mature, to reproduce, to die. One aim, one goal in mind, so beautifully simple. I wonder, have I succeeded or failed? I am better than what I have done, than the one act for which I have been reviled, will be remembered.’

So too, are the women in that room. I wouldn’t necessarily read The Butterfly Cabinet with my group – not because it’s not a great read, because it really is. I would read it with everyone who has not been in prison. They need it more. It challenges the reader to think from a range of perspectives – same story, different interpretations, different emotions, different readings – The Butterfly Cabinet could metonymically represent the kinds of things that happen in shared reading groups all over, in all environments; the intersections of life stories, the retrieval of all the parts, the identification of the self in them, the fitting of the pieces together, and a need, a desperate need, to make sense.   

 The Butterfly Cabinet, Bernie McGill, Headline (2011)

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