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BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Hachette Australia
March 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Historical Fiction

6/10

Lizzie Borden is forever immortalised and remembered as a woman implicated in one of America’s most famous unsolved murders. There is the famous rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father 41

The story has been the subject of numerous books and films over the years. Sarah Schmidt’s eerie novel, See What I Have Done is the latest one to cover this case. This is Schmidt’s debut is a fictionalised narrative and a fly-on-the-wall type of story that describes the lead-up, aftermath and the actual crime from the perspective of multiple characters. It’s an ambitious and unique approach to the case but it’s also one that is hard to grasp and follow at times.

In Fall River Massachusetts two unmarried and adult daughters live with their father Andrew Borden and their step-mother Abby in the late 19th century. The family is a dysfunctional one and there have been allegations of abuse. Andrew is a controlling and miserly father and he has a complicated relationship with his daughters. The eldest, Emma longs for freedom away from the household while Lizzie remains a strange, narcissistic and infantile character. She is treated with cotton gloves for most of the story and is often pandered to by some of the characters and openly despised by others:

“You know you can stay for as long as you like.’ Helen came close, took my hand. The warmth. Helen, the good friend…
‘Would that be a burden for you?’ I said.
Helen shooed her free hand towards me. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You could live here a hundred years as long as Lizzie doesn’t move in.”

Lizzie Borden has taken to saving, caring and adopting injured pigeons. Her father does not approve of this pastime because he believes the birds are the source of multiple diseases. In some absolutely gruesome text Schmidt describes how the family patriarch finally deals with these creatures.

I would’ve kept it up had it not been for the chocking sound outside. Chock, a flurry wind. Chock, an axe in wood. Chock, a grunting. Chock, chock…
In the backyard by the barn stood Mr Borden, his jacket on the grass, white shirtsleeves rolled to elbow. He held an axe in one hand, an upside-down pigeon in the other, its wings wide, stiff from the blood rushing to its head, the shock of what was awaiting. My knees got to trembling and my bladder gave way a little, wet me between my legs.

This prose is a shape of the things to come. On 4 August 1892 Andrew and Abby’s dead bodies are found by Lizzie. They died from multiple blows to the head by an axe and some people consider Lizzie to be the primary suspect. In the early stages of the investigation the local police don’t thoroughly look into the possibility that this murder was perpetrated by a family member because another killing had taken place in the area using a similar method. But Schmidt uses Benjamin, a relative stranger to the Borden family, as a means of flagging Lizzie’s guilt.

“They needed someone to tell them it’s family you need to worry about, not an outsider. I knew what people were capable of.”

Sarah Schmidt does not spoon-feed the reader by giving them the answers; instead she poses a lot of questions about the events that transpired and allows people to draw their own conclusions. It’s good that she does this but it also doesn’t absolve the book from its faults. The non-linear structure of the proceedings as well as having flashbacks and memories embedded in chapters that are supposed to be taking place on specific days makes it difficult to follow at times. The shifting first-person perspective between the weird and suffocating Lizzie, her distant sister Emma, as well as two “outsiders” to the family: Irish housekeeper Bridget, and hired thug Benjamin, further complicates things. There are also moments where these characters voices feel interchangeable or not distinct enough in their own rights, which also adds to the confusion for the reader.

Sarah Schmidt should be commended for writing prose that is so beautifully unnerving and thorough and for handling these events in a rather decent way, especially the contradictions and strange elements about the crime, the family, and society. But this book is ultimately a challenging read because it inhabits a dark and ambiguous place and it leaves a lot of things left unsaid.

See What I Have Done adds a unique perspective to a famous unsolved murder case and, while it is intriguing, it is let down by some issues with its structure and characterisation. Regardless of this, it will no doubt appeal to some readers as it gives a new take on the case but allows them to draw their own conclusions about this whole strange enigma.

BOOK REVIEW: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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