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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Book review: See What I Have Done is a sensory take on a sensational murder case

Sarah Schmidt’s narrative of the Bordens’ deaths is a brilliant portrait of the dispiriting household rather than a whodunnit.
See What I Have Done
See What I Have Done

On the morning of August 4, 1892, husband and wife Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally hacked to death in their home in the small town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Their 32-year-old daughter Lizzie was the prime suspect.

A cause célèbre of that period in America – spoiler alert: Lizzie, the O J Simpson of her day, was tried and acquitted – yet more than a century on, we’re still obsessed with the tale. From Angela Carter’s short story The Fall River Axe Murders, through to Ed McBain’s novel Lizzie, the recent television series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles and a feature film, starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, that’s due for release later this year, Lizzie Borden has captured the imaginations of many, including that of first-time novelist Sarah Schmidt.

See What I Have Done is an up-close-and-personal portrait of life in the Borden household in the run up to, and immediately after, the murders that alternates between the voices of four characters: Lizzie; her older sister Emma, who, although she still lived at home – as did her sister, both women having remained unmarried – was actually out of town when the crime took place; Bridget, the Bordens’ young Irish maid; and Benjamin, a violent drifter with revenge on the brain, who becomes entangled with Lizzie and Emma’s maternal uncle. Largely ignoring Lizzie’s now legendary trial, Schmidt breathes life – fetid and stifling as it is – into the increasingly toxic atmosphere of 92 Second Street.

Abby was actually Andrew’s second wife, and Lizzie and Emma’s stepmother, but the only mother Lizzie really knew (her and Emma’s having died when Lizzie was only two). Strange then that 20-odd years later Lizzie suddenly stops referring to her as such, using the more formal “Mrs Borden” instead. Thus, by the time we meet them here, relations between step-mother and step-daughter are strained and uncomfortable.

Schmidt’s Lizzie is a masterful creation: as unreliable a narrator as they come, she’s sly and conniving one minute, a petulant child throwing a tantrum the next. Schmidt takes her title from the nursery 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” – it might not seem like the most suitable subject matter for a child’s skipping song, but Schmidt’s Lizzie has long been infantilised by her nearest and dearest, indulged and spoilt by her father, and protected by her older sister (the promise Emma made to their dying mother to look after her younger sibling exerting a hellish hold over her).

Lizzie is the star of the show, but also of note is the strikingly ambivalent relationship between the sisters, their rapport as inconsistent as Lizzie’s own mood swings, fluctuating between intimacy and claustrophobia with alarming speed. “Every day I was surrounded by my sister,” Emma laments, “clumps of auburn hair found on the carpet and in the sink; fingerprints on mirrors and doors; the smell of musk hiding in drapes. I would wake with my sister in my mouth, hair strands, a taste of sour milk, like she was possessing me.”

The Borden household is one of suffocating physicality: dirty undergarments cling to clammy skin; dresses “gripped tight”; bladders swell to “bursting”; all while the sticky summer heat beats down. “I felt like I was drowning in salt and sweat,” says Emma.

Schmidt evokes an often stomach-­churning sensory overload. Food and viscera become interchangeable, a probing tongue the only way to tell the difference between blood and jam; bodies expel their contents – teeth, vomit, it’s all the same. The sweet ripe stench of decay hangs heavily in the air; and then there are those dreadful sounds that break the morning silence: “Chock, chock. A sound of grunting, like an animal eating. Chock.”

“None of this would have happened if she hadn’t left me in the house,” Lizzie berates her sister at one point. But Emma’s not the only one who’s trapped, desperate to break free from the secrets, resentment, rivalry and seething anger with which the household heaves. “You should not be allowed to just leave!” screams an irate Abby, worn out by her step-daughter’s unpredictable behaviour, when poor put-upon Bridget gives her notice.

True crime this is not – the weakest part of the book is Benjamin’s arbitrary summation of Lizzie’s trial; necessary perhaps, but it sits at odds with the interiority that precedes it – so if you want theories and analytics, look elsewhere. But what See What I Have Done does, it does rather brilliantly.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance reviewer based in London.

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