Book Review of “See What I Have Done” by Sarah Schmidt.
Although a jury of her peers found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murders of her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden, the court of public opinion found her guilty as charged. The mystery behind these brutal murders continues to this day, almost a full 125 years since it happened, while scholars continue to try to figure out the truth. Of course, a good historical mystery is exactly the type of fodder to feed any good fiction writer’s imagination. No wonder Schmidt took this story on, and gave it an angle that makes the few facts available even more sinister than the legend or this memorable gruesome poem.
Lizzie Borden with an axe
gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done
gave her father forty-one.
Think what you will, but the only thing in that little rhyme that is provably accurate is that Abby died before Andrew. Schmidt seemingly took the popular view of these events, and with it, built up a psychological thriller of a novel, looking at the events through the eyes of four characters – three real people and one fictional person. Lizzie is the primary narrator here, with her sister Emma and the maid Bridget filling out the last of the real individuals here. With them, Schmidt adds someone called Benjamin, a drifter hired by John Morse (the girl’s biological mother’s brother), ostensibly, to teach Andrew a lesson because of how poorly he treated his daughters. Schmidt allows each of these characters to tell their own story, in alternating chapters.
Before you dismiss this book as overly macabre and morbid, I will remind you that (as my regular readers will know), I don’t usually read crime or adventure novels. However, this really isn’t one of those; it’s much more of a psychological study. To be precise, what Schmidt has done here is get into the heads of these people, and through their thoughts, we learn first about their states of mind, and with them, events surrounding the murders with some flashes back into their pasts. For example, in the parts focusing on Lizzie, every so often Schmidt adds the line “The clock on the mantle ticked ticked” (hence, the title of this review). With these repetitions of that one line, it slowly becomes an ominous and hypnotizing statement, with each recurrence. Doing this gives us the feeling that Lizzie’s mental state is far from normal. Despite this, Schmidt also includes are flashes of clarity in Lizzie’s mind, which makes us wonder if her condition (call it sanity, if you will) is increasingly deteriorating or just some kind of an act.
With Benjamin, the one fictional character, Schmidt takes another approach altogether. Here is a man with a purpose both to and within the story. Benjamin gives us insight into John in general, as well as into his relationship with his nieces, and with Andrew and Abby. More importantly, because of John’s malicious intent for sending Benjamin to the Borden home, both John and Benjamin then become suspects in the murders, a theory that comes totally out of Schmidt’s vivid imagination.
What brings all of this together is Schmidt’s writing style throughout this novel, which I found both fascinating and disturbing. While on the one hand Schmidt gives each of her characters very distinctive voices, she also instills in all of them some level of discomfort. Bridget’s distress starts out as annoyance in her treatment as an employee, and later the inability to cope with the double murder. Benjamin expresses more anger than anything else, which adds to the pain from the injury he has when Schmidt introduces him to the story. Emma’s anxiety focuses mostly on Lizzie, as well as her guilt at trying to leave her sister behind and escape this toxic family. Lizzie’s narrative, on the other hand, constantly moves between strangely erratic to a type of sinister playfulness. Into all this, Schmidt intertwines the text with dark, poetic metaphors (including quite a few involving sticky-sweet pears) that further contribute to the overall eerie and gothic atmosphere.
One might think that this would make for a novel that is overly depressing or disturbing, rather than a gripping or forceful read (can you call a book you’ve read on Kindle a “page turner?”). Thankfully, the descriptions of blood and the bodies were somewhat less gruesome than they could have been, most probably because of the lyricism of Schmidt’s prose. Despite all this, while I think Schmidt gave us a lusciously written, masterfully riveting novel (no small achievement for a debut work), something is preventing me from giving it a full five stars, and I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s because this book (unpleasantly) haunted me, and maybe I’m ashamed of my own morbid curiosity, I’m not sure. All I know is, I couldn’t stop reading it, and for that, I’ll highly recommend it with a very strong four and a half stars out of five.
“See What I Have Done” by Sarah Schmidt is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, eBooks, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.