As regular readers of my blog will know, I love stories featuring a true, unsolved crime, and so I was absolutely thrilled to get my hands on a review copy of Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel, See What I Have Done, which is a fictionalised retelling of Lizzie Borden and the brutal murders of her father and step-mother in 1892, a crime immortalised in the 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.
On the morning of 4 August 1892, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden were discovered by Lizzie, Andrew’s youngest daughter. Lizzie was arrested for their murders several days later, and was imprisoned for ten months for the duration of the trial, at which she was acquitted. No one was ever sentenced for the crime.
Schmidt’s tale is set predominantly on the third and fourth of August, and is told from a variety of perspectives – Lizzie and her sister, Emma as well as the Borden’s maid, Bridget, and Benjamin, a man acquainted with Lizzie and Emma’s uncle.
I personally enjoyed Bridget’s narrative the most. Bridget was 26 years old at the time of the murders, and wants nothing more than to return to her home in Ireland. As a maid, she is sufficiently connected to the family without being a part of it, and it’s through her eyes that we see how dysfunctional the family is. That’s not to say that Bridget is a neutral observer, however – she is a servant and that will always cause events to be viewed in a certain light, but she sees more of what goes on in the household than anyone else, and seemed the most grounded of the characters in the novel.
Lizzie, on the other hand, I didn’t like at all. From the beginning, she is pitched as being manipulative, selfish and spoilt. She has a very strange relationship with those around her and seems to think that, as the youngest, her whims will always be pandered to, and even at 32 as she was at the time of the murders, she comes across as a petulant, often sulky, child. I found Lizzie a little difficult to believe as a character in this respect – she just didn’t come across as a 32-year-old, and given the time in which she lived, I think that she’d have had such behaviour beaten out of her by that point. You could argue that the parents were perhaps too indulgent, although they aren’t presented in that way here.
In my mind, this also raised the question of why Lizzie and Emma (41 at the time of the murders) weren’t married. Whilst Schmidt does touch upon this subject with Emma, it seemed a little odd, and rather unusual for the time. That said, the Borden household was anything other than normal, and I’m sure that there were many exceptions to the trend of marrying one’s children off as soon as they reached a suitable age.
Unusually for this kind of novel, Schmidt doesn’t explore the arrest or the trial, although we do hear about it in retrospect. I wasn’t sure if Schmidt was trying to let the reader make their own judgement as to Lizzie’s guilt or innocence, or if it was just that she wanted to focus on the murders themselves rather than the aftermath. Whatever the reason, it made this novel a little different to others that tackle a similar event, although I personally quite enjoy the trial and learning the outcome of the accused as part of those proceedings.
Schmidt has a unique writing style, and I think this style will divide readers. I liked it, even if it occasionally had me off-kilter and meant that I had to reread a sentence, but I do think that some readers will struggle with it. Additionally, the narrative isn’t linear, although I thought that Schmidt handled this really well, and I enjoyed seeing the same event from different perspectives to put an alternative spin on a particular event.
I feel that I’ve been quite critical in this review, which shouldn’t be taken to mean that I didn’t enjoy the novel, because I did. I think that for me it raised a lot of questions, and that it stopped just shy of saying “here is the culprit”. I would recommend it to fans of this kind of novel, though – it’s an entertaining story and I enjoyed learning more about the Borden murders, of which I knew very little prior to reading this. Schmidt has clearly done a lot of research into the murders, and I thought the narrative she put around the events was compelling – I wanted to know what happened, and whether I was right in the conclusion that I came to.
See What I Have Done will be published on 4 May by Tinder Press – many thanks to Georgina Moore for providing a copy for review.