See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.
As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.
I do love books that take actual events and weave a story around them. Bring characters to life that you only know the very best or very worst about. In this case Sarah Schmidt takes the infamous Lizzie Borden: accused of axing her father and step-mother to death, she was then acquitted, but still remained the prime suspect.
Most people are familiar with the old, rather gruesome, schoolyard rhyme:
“Lizzie Borden took an axe,
and gave her mother forty whacks,
when she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty one.”
This book is told from four viewpoints; Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and Benjamin, who gives an outsider’s perspective.
Lizzie’s voice is childlike, coming across as whiny and selfish and sounding much younger than her 30+ years. The relationship with her sister Emma is completely unhealthy; Lizzie is needy and dependent and Emma is staying at relatives to give herself much needed distance.
The whole family exists in a state of disfunctionality and Sarah Schmidt’s writing is engrossing, bringing out the mistrust and perceived slights between the family members. The whole atmosphere of the Borden household is claustrophobic and brooding in the extreme. This is not helped by being inside Lizzie’s head, a disturbing and unsettling place to be and we are soon glad of the differing viewpoints.
The book is awash with sensory overload; the descriptions of taste and smell leave a disgusting taste in your mouth: the rancid mutton stew, the sickness, Lizzie’s need to wallow in the blood and gore as she tries to come to terms with the fact that her father is dead.
Lizzie was put on trial for the murders but was acquitted for no better reason than the jury did not believe that a woman was capable of committing such a crime. Sarah Schmidt tells Lizzie’s side of the story and you can make your own mind up, there are other possibilities and the different viewpoints are fascinating.
This is a completely compelling read and if you enjoy true-life historical drama you are probably going to enjoy this.
Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.