Like an Irish Upstairs Downstairs but much darker, McGill’s first novel examines the events surrounding a child’s death in 1892 from the point of view of both her aristocratic mother and a young housemaid.
The premise of the novel, based on an actual case, is straightforward: Harriet Ormond, the mistress of Oranmore, locks her 4-year-old daughter Charlotte in a wardrobe room with her hands tied as punishment for soiling herself; when Harriet unlocks the door three hours later, Charlotte has asphyxiated; Harriet is charged with killing her child. Seventy years later, Ornamore has become a nursing home where Harriet’s granddaughter Annie visits Maddie McGlade, a former Ormond servant. Maddie gives Annie the diary Harriet kept during her year in prison and tells her own secret memories. Shifting between Maddie’s version of events and Harriet’s, the novel gives a broad picture of the politics and socio-economic realities of late 19th-century Northern Ireland (the Ormonds are Catholic landowners in favor of Home Rule) while offering an intricate, in-depth character study of Harriet’s tortured soul. Talk about Tiger moms—as the diary begins, it is hard to feel sympathy for such a harsh, seemingly unfeeling woman, and certainly that is how Maddie judges her mistress. But the diary gradually reveals Harriet’s complexity. Having felt unloved as a child, she is devoted to her own children and her thoughtful, well-meaning husband Edward. But she lacks imagination and flexibility. A frazzled young mother of nine running a huge estate on a shoestring, she feels duty-bound to be strict. Jealous of her charming, well-educated younger sister Julia, who has come to live at Oranmore after their parents’ deaths, Harriet knows and secretly relies on the fact that Julia regularly circumvents her punishments. When she locks Charlotte in the wardrobe, she assumes Julia will unlock the door to care for her. But as Maddie’s story unfolds it becomes obvious that Harriet has less control over life than she thinks.An emotionally bracing, refreshingly intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking story.