There are few literary texts that have left me looking over my shoulder and perhaps a little jumpy upon completion; scenes playing over in my mind, questioning a character’s thoughts and actions. Then along came Sarah Schmidt.
Her debut novel, See What I Have Done, explores the infamous Lizzie Borden story; a young woman tried and later cleared of the brutal axe murders of her father and stepmother. If the tale is perhaps unfamiliar, there’s little doubt the sinister rhyme associated with the killings will offer up some familiarity:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty one.
Schmidt’s fascination with the Borden murders was triggered by a chance find in a second-hand bookstore, which unintentionally led to a self-confessed: “Ten year creative obsession.” And what an obsession she’s created. From the get-go we are placed at the heart of this gloriously gruesome tale. Lizzie Borden requires little introduction. We, the reader, peer over her shoulders as she stares seemingly unfazed at her father’s broken body. It is clear from Schmidt’s brilliant turn-of-phrase, that Lizzie is not your average 31-year-old woman.
Each chapter brings with it a new perspective. Experiencing this heinous crime through different eyes, conjures up more ‘who actually dunnits?’ than I was expecting. Perhaps that’s just my interpretation (there’s no denying nearly all fingers point to Lizzie) but this case is still unsolved and Schmidt’s natural art for story telling, and superb characterisation, definitely left me questioning ‘who?’
The entire Borden family appear to live life in Fall River, under a thickening cloud of doom and self-destruction. Lizzie’s older sister, Emma, was inevitably going to get sucked into her sister’s turmoil – that was clear from the start – and I so wished her inner warrior would take flight. Emma is ever the protective older sister standing in Lizzie’s shadow – the perfect ‘fall of trust’ partner. Extended family didn’t fare much better. Uncle John: yuck. A dressed-up thug with a pen chant for all things vile. And a chance encounter with a young lad called Benjamin, gives him the perfect violent partner-in-crime. Benjamin, born into violence and brought up to behave as such, it’s inevitable his life’s journey was never going to be a positive one. But does Uncle John provide him with more or less than he bargained for? Another soul lost to the Borden name was Irish maid Bridget. How I longed for her to escape at nightmare at Fall River under the Borden name. We watch as life drains from her very being and I sincerely hope she managed, one day, to return to her loving home.
Schmidt has not only written an intriguing take on the Borden story, but has left a lasting impression that will impact on those who are familiar and unfamiliar with the story. A dazzling debut that should be read with the lights switched on. And preferably away from any possible sightings of pigeons and pears…you’ll see…
This copy of See What I Have Done was kindly provided for review purposes.