Saturday 17 March 2018

Time to spread those literary wings

Bernie McGill (Headline Review,£19.99)

On April 3, 1892, in Dublin's Four Courts, Annie Margaret Montagu was found guilty of the manslaughter of her daughter, three-year-old Mary Helen.

A few days after the child's death, at an inquest held in the family's home, Cromore House near Portstewart on the Coleraine coast, the coroner ruled that the child had died of asphyxia.

Montagu, in evidence to the inquest, said she tied the child's hands with a stocking to a ring on the wall of an upstairs bedroom and locked the door, leaving Mary Helen alone in the room for three hours. Montagu was sentenced to 12 months in jail, the majority of which she served in Grangegorman prison on Dublin's northside.

It is from this real-life trial that theatre manager and playwright Bernie McGill has found the inspiration for her first novel, a Victorian-era narrative of maternal love and longing, of fading memory and the pressing need to tell your story.

Using two separate female voices, McGill delves into the past and offers the reader a fictionalised account of the events surrounding the tragic death of a child.

Maddie McGlade was a servant and nanny in Oranmore, the ancestral home of the Ormond family near Portstewart. Now, almost 70 years later, she has returned to live at the coastal estate, which has passed out of the family's hands and become a care home for the elderly.

The other female voice belongs to Harriet Ormond, imprisoned for the manslaughter of daughter Charlotte. The diary that butterfly enthusiast Harriet kept while incarcerated, she later secreted away in the eponymous cabinet of the novel's title and years later the seemingly worthless heirloom passed into the possession of the family's long-serving nanny, Maddie.

When Maddie receives a letter from her last charge, Harriet's granddaughter Annie, she is forced to confront the shadowy corners of her own past and relive the day when Charlotte died.

Maddie's narrative transitions smoothly between her time as a servant in Oranmore during the last decade of the 18th Century, and the novel's present, the late 1960s, and the voice slips gently from youthful colloquialism to something much more authoritative and knowing.

Structurally, Harriet's prison diaries bring a wonderful balance and counterpoint to Maddie's story, at times intriguingly calling into question her version of events.

But, ultimately, that character remains somewhat underdeveloped, and it is to Maddie's story that the reader looks forward to returning.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a very "Irish" novel, in the sense that its gaze is firmly fixed on the past, and both Irish politics and history loom large in the background; although McGill ultimately eschews tackling head-on either topic in favour of focusing on the personal narratives of these two women.

Home rule, the land wars and the early rumblings of the Troubles in North all get a mention, but are relegated to the status of background noise.

But echoes of other more established Irish writers are clearly audible, particularly Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, whose central character is also an elderly woman in a nursing home confronting her past and the secrets held within.

But comparisons with Barry, McGahern and their contemporaries are both dangerously premature and a little disingenuous.

The Butterfly Cabinet, as a debut novel, is assured and very readable, holding plenty of promise for future offerings. But the familiarity of that backward narrative gaze, the accompanying sense of nostalgia and the fact that McGill has written the kind of novel that some of the biggest names of literary Ireland have already tackled, means there it is always going to fall somewhat short of the mark.

For her next novel, perhaps McGill should take the advice of Irish-born writer Julian Gough, and move away from the "funeral-in-the-rain" tradition of writing to engage with modern Ireland.

Following so closely in the footsteps of our own literary giants is an arduous route to take. But by striking out on her own path, McGill could produce something really quite special.

Irish Independent

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