Book Reviews · Reading Thoughts

Review: See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

The trial of Lizzie Borden is one of the most infamous cases in American history. On 4th August 1894, Lizzie’s father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, were both found brutally murdered in their home, one hot summer morning. Both of them had sustained horrific injuries to their faces and body- injuries inflicted by an axe, and though Lizzie was initially arrested and charged, she was eventually acquitted. To this day, nobody has conclusively managed to prove who did it.
With such a controversial, and famous, subject to tackle, there’s always a danger that you fail to find a fresh angle for the story, or that you leave something out. That’s very much not that case for Sarah Schmidt’s novel; with a plethora of characters, each with their own individual viewpoints, grudges, and motives, she weaves a tapestry that lets you see Lizzie Borden like before. It makes for fascinating reading- especially as you, like everybody else, don’t know who did it.
Firstly, I have to address the structure of the novel: it’s equal parts beguiling, confusing and frustrating. The book itself starts just after the murders themselves have been committed, describing the events through the eyes of Lizzie Border, the suspected axe-murderess. By starting from the point that most people are familiar with- the murders- Sarah Schmidt has the perfect platform from which to dive into live in the Borden household. From here, we learn about Lizzie’s disgruntled older sister, Emma, the maid Bridget; and even Benjamin, a mysterious man hired by Lizzie’s uncle John for a rather sinister reason…
The story itself jumps between people and time zones with a frequency that is quite unsettling. Sarah Schmidt has a knack with words: I loved the way in which she subtly altered her tone and style to match the viewpoint of the character she was inhabiting. In this way, we get to see the world from Lizzie’s rather confused, childlike way of thinking, to Emma’s sullen, more resentful way of seeing things. Though Lizzie tends to live in the moment, Emma is constantly drawing on her shared history with her sister, trying to find ways in which to love her even as the plot unfolds and fingers start being pointed.
And unfold it does: slowly, confusingly and through several peoples’ eyes. The days up to, and of, the murder are explored in painstaking detail: events that seem insignificant suddenly take on a whole new meaning in a later chapter, as so peoples’ motives. Emma, for instance, is described sympathetically in one chapter and completely differently in another, when Bridget is remembering events, as is Uncle John. This works to create a feeling of uncertainty and claustrophobia that grows stronger throughout the novel, colouring of view of people, and of events.
Schmidt also goes to great lengths to flesh out her characters’ backstories and show us why they act as they do: Emma resents Lizzie, but feels bound to her because of a promise she made her mother. These people are angry with each other for a multitude of reasons, and as the flashbacks progress, the tension within the household ratchets up to breaking point. There’s hardly any emphasis on the aftermath of the murder- the trial; the acquittal. Here, it’s all about the tangled web of relationships between the people that were there on the day of the murder.
And what about Lizzie? She’s at the centre of events, but her own story remains confusing and vague, right up until the end. Like the story, she refuses to give up her secrets, even until the end, preferring instead to keep us guessing- as is only right for one of the greatest murder mysteries of all time. Schmidt does a fantastic job of bringing the past to life: enthralling and complicated, it forces you to work for your answers.
Did Lizzie do it? Read it and find out…

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