See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Opening sentence: “He was still bleeding.”
Oh yes, now THIS is a brilliant read. It is a mix of all the things I love in a page-turner: It’s based on real events, is dripping in suspense and has a plethora of creepy characters you just can’t quite read. See What I Have Done came to my attention due to its inclusion on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist and I’m so glad it did.
On 4th August 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death with an axe in their own home, the now infamous 92 Second Street, Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew’s daughter, Lizzie, was accused of their murders. She spent 10 months in prison awaiting trial and was then acquitted on 20 June 1893 and set free. No one was ever charged with the murders, the case remains unsolved. BUT did Lizzie actually, in fact, kill her father and step-mother and literally get away with murder? This is the fascinating real-life story that See What I Have Done explores.
Sarah Schmidt effortlessly transports us back to the Borden home in the hot, oppressive summer of 1892 and builds a portrait of a fractured, resentful family-on-the-edge in the run up to, and in the aftermath of, the murders. Lizzie and her older sister Emma (who Lizzie adores to the point of obsession) still live in the family home (despite being 32 and 42 years old) with their father, Andrew, step-mother, Abby and Bridget, their much put-upon Irish maid.
Tension thrums throughout this read, the refrain,“The clock on the mantel ticked ticked” is repeated to really create a claustrophobic atmosphere, and as Lizzie gets more agitated, it is intensified, “The clock on the mantel ticked ticked, its tick-tick climbing down over the ledge along the carpet into my feet; little cannons.” The structure adds to this atmosphere too, as chapters from Lizzie, Emma and Bridget each give their point of view, revealing events, adding details and throwing up tantalising little facts and character quirks. There are also chapters from the sinister (and fictional) Benjamin, a friend of the sisters’ Uncle John. John just happened to be visiting them when the murders happened.
This book’s great triumph is the characterisation of Lizzie. She is sinister, she is creepy, she is whip sharp – or is she deluded? Is she conniving or is she a child trapped in a 32-year-old woman’s body? Is she a cold, calculated murderer or an innocent, confused woman accused of something terrible? At one point she says, ‘Uncle, I’m not quite sure what is real.’ And as a reader, neither are you – that is the beauty of her.
Unbelievably, the Borden house is now a B&B and museum that you can STAY IN (!!), decorated as it would have been when Lizzie’s family lived there, it comes complete with a gift shop and reenactments of the murders… Tasteful it is not, but I live for random facts like this, although it would take A LOT of money to make me want to spend a night there – I don’t believe in ghosts per se, but I also have no desire to sleep in a house where people were brutally murdered. Sarah Schmidt, however, did. She stayed in the Borden house while researching this book, to really connect with the family – and it worked. I just loved how she gave life to the family members and created a very plausible series of events surrounding the murders, adding another (fictional, I know, but still) layer to the Lizzie Borden myth. I have, of course, now found myself Googling Lizzie Borden and am trapped in a Lizzie conspiracy theory wormhole…