Ms McGill's novel is based on a sad event. In 1892, an aristocratic woman punished her four year old daughter. The child strangled to death.
In this fictional version of the tragedy, the story moves between the prison diary of Lady Harriet Ormond as she serves time for her daughter Charlotte's accidental death, and the memories of Maddie McGlade over seventy years later. The backdrop to each woman's narrative is provided by important moments in Irish history: the struggle for home rule for Harriet, the civil unrest of 1968-69 for Maddie. The alternating viewpoints, of events that are being recounted in 1892 by Lady Harriet Ormond and her contemporaneous reactions, and Maddie's recollections some seventy years later make for interesting reading. Maddie is now in her nineties, and realises the time has come to share a secret (or two) that she has carried with her all this time. It is Anna she tells: the last of the children she cared for, and a granddaughter of Lady Harriet.
`That's what we do: tell made-up stories to fend off the night, to put off telling the truth.'
The voices of Maddie and Lady Harriet are very different, as are their circumstances and their views. Harriet and her husband have nine children in 12 years of marriage, Maddie starts work at Oranmore aged 14. Harriet yearns for the freedom to collect butterflies, while Maddie is immersed in the hard work and drudgery of housework. . Maddie has witnessed abuse of a number of the children and has, with the knowledge of Peig the housekeeper, reported the maltreatment to the Cruelty Society. To no avail.
But what is the story of the last day in the life of Charlotte Ormond? Charlotte is Lady Harriet's only daughter and, at 4 years of age, one of her younger children. She is confined to a room (`the Wardrobe Room') for punishment by Lady Harriet and dies, after being left alone for hours. But there is another aspect to the tragedy as well, and it is Maddie's to tell.
`I told the solicitor the whole truth and nothing but the truth; I answered every question he asked me. But I didn't give him the answers to the questions he didn't ask.'
Because of Charlotte's treatment and death, I found this a haunting and disturbing novel. But I admire the structure and the writing, and I am still wondering about a couple of aspects.