Book Title and Author: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Publication Date and Publisher: August 1, 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Mystery
Pages: 336 pages
Buy on Amazon.com
Date Read: June 25, 2017
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.
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
If you are like me, this is a rhyme you are familiar with from childhood, so I was eager to read Sarah Schmidt’s account of one of the most gruesome and bloody murders in American history. Oh, and I admit that I have a penchant for serial killers and gruesome murders, fictional or real life, and have spent way too much time over the years reading about the facts of the Lizzie Borden murders and trial. So, I really wanted to read how the account was portrayed in See What I Have Done! In her stunning debut novel, I love how Schmidt gives an excellent fictionalized account of the real-life Borden murders by using historical research, forensic detail, and a documented timeline that she includes at the end of the book to seamlessly recreate that fateful morning of August 4, 1892 and then, briefly touches on the events of Lizzie’s trial and acquittal one year later.
See What I Have Done is a very unnerving and disconcerting study of a psychologically damaged and dysfunctional family. It also explores themes of love, hate, codependency, emotional abuse, independence, and mental instability. Instead of being plot driven, the novel is very character driven and is told by four different narrators: Lizzie, her sister Emma, their Irish housekeeper Bridget, and Benjamin, a nefarious man hired by the Borden sisters’ Uncle John “to handle” Mr. Borden because of his mistreatment of his daughters. Each of the four narrators have completely distinct personalities and give very detailed accounts of their memories of the day the murder occurred and the day leading up to the murder, as well as memories of the past.
I will say that as wonderful a writer that Schmidt is that I thought in some places some of her narratives were a bit jumpy and all over the place since she would have a character right in the middle of a thought or conversation and suddenly their thoughts would flashback to the past, or they would have a random thought completely unrelated to the narrative they were giving. It was a bit jarring because they would then just suddenly return back to the point in the narrative where they were before. Other readers may not have an issue with the narrative being choppy and jumpy in places, but I thought it could have flowed better. However, it is just a minor issue that I had, and Schmidt is overall an excellent writer.
Lizzie’s perspective is the one we hear the most, and it is very troubling, starkly vivid, and confusing. She is one of the most unreliable narrators I have ever encountered in a novel. Not only does she have fragmented thoughts about the morning of the murder, but she seems way too calm and excited that a murder has happened. She wants to be with the dead bodies. See them. Touch them. Kiss her dead father’s bloody wounds and cuts. Lick the blood that is on her hands from where she discovered her father’s body. This is very abnormal behavior for someone no matter if she did or did not commit the murders. Then the more we observe Lizzie, we see her as a quite manipulative and disturbed young woman. Spiteful. Vindictive. Spoiled. Tempestuous. Codependent. Petulant. Immature. Childish. All of those are fitting descriptions for Lizzie based on her characterization by Schmidt, which was quite excellent and in depth. It’s very possible based on Lizzie’s behavior that she was mentally ill or suffering from a personality disorder. Two questions continued to cross my mind while reading the book: did Lizzie commit the murders, and should she be committed to a psych ward? Still, there several occasions in the narrative where you absolutely cannot help feel sorry for Lizzie since Mr. Borden is characterized as a brute and tyrant towards his daughters and Abby as a spiteful and unloving stepmother. Also, Schmidt does present possible motives for their murders, especially when she includes the terrible pigeon scene (no, I’m not spoiling it by telling you!), which is historically accurate and was included in the trial records. Wow, though! Isn’t that one amazing cover with the pigeon on it….it’s gothic, beautiful, and creepy all at once!
Emma, however, is the sister I felt the sorriest for since she was stuck in this very strange, disturbing codependent relationship with Lizzie. Bitterness and her longingness to escape her family flow off the pages. Her feelings of responsibility towards Lizzie only enables Lizzie’s infantile and disturbing behavior. It’s quite obvious that Emma fears Lizzie murdered their parents, questions her about it, and is even scared of her to an extent, but Emma stays by her side through her arrest and acquittal since Emma had made a deathbed promise to their mother to care for her much younger sister. However, her bitterness towards Lizzie, her dad, and Abby makes her almost as unreliable narrator as Lizzie. At one point I suspected her for the murders except for the fact she had an alibi. Or did she really? Could she have snuck in the house while everyone thought she was a few miles away? After all, she had a key to the always locked house, and she strongly craved independence from her father and had always hated Mrs. Borden. Really, everyone in the novel is suspect.
Benjamin and Bridget, the other two narrators, were quite opposites. Benjamin was not a favorite of mine at all, and I could have done without his addition to the story although his perspective is there to offer another suspect to throw suspicion off of Lizzie since he was not only hiding in the house at the time the murders occurred but he offers a feasible solution to what happened to the murder weapon that was never discovered by the police, therefore, giving them nothing to connect Lizzie to the crimes.
Bridget was perhaps the most reliable and normal of all the narrators since I suppose she was the only normal person living in the house! She only wanted to move back to her family in Ireland and had been saving all of her wages the entire time she had been working for the Bordens just to return home. Yet, she disliked all the Bordens, and in the end, Schmidt gave her a nice motive for the murders of Abby and Andrew Borden. But, Bridget clearly thinks Lizzie committed the crime and makes that obvious to all unless she is covering for herself. Schmidt throws red herrings in the novel to throw the reader off track, and she does it well. It’s clearly up to the reader to decide which character’s narrative is the truth or the truth in their own opinion!
See What I Have Done is told in a very disturbing yet evocative and eerie manner. The vibe of the entire novel is creepy without being overly suspenseful. Perhaps the lack of suspense is because you know going into the story who supposedly committed the murders. However, the novel is almost gothic in the disturbing way it is told, which is an excellent way to write a novel of a graphic and gory real-life murder that occurred in the late nineteenth century. What an excellent move by Schmidt! Another thing Schmidt did so well was to write her prose in such a way that the reader’s senses of smell, taste, and touch are completely overloaded. Visceral and evocative is the best way that I can describe the way Schmidt describes the smells, tastes, and sense of touches in the books. This is not a book for the faint of heart with its almost overly vivid descriptions of the smell and taste of days old rotten mutton soup, the taste, smell, and touch of overripe and sticky pears, the metallic smell and the slippery feel of blood, and the putridness of vomit. It’s such a sensory overload that you feel physically sick at several points in the book, but it works so well for this disturbing tale.
I highly recommend Schmidt’s debut to anyone who loves crime novels, real-life murder mysteries, or historical fiction. It’s an enthralling albeit very unsettling read.
**Thank you to NetGalley, Atlantic Monthly Press, and Sarah Schmidt for an eARC to read in exchange for my fair and honest review. **