See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Lizzie Borden was a young woman who was accused of murdering her father and step-mother with an axe in Massachusetts in the 1890s. In See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt imagines the events which might have led to this brutal double murder. I had been really craving some creepy reads, so when the proof appeared at work, I nabbed it immediately.

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It had multiple narrators, which I enjoyed, and none of them are at all reliable. I bloody love an unreliable narrator. So we see the events from the point of view of Lizzie, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and Benjamin, an outsider to the Borden household who is pretty sinister and comes to play a role in their lives. It’s primarily set across the day of the murders and the day after, but through those days we see the characters think back across the years and remember the household across time. Schmidt brilliantly builds up a picture of an oppressive, unhappy living situation, and of the mental state of the sisters over time.

I’m pretty sure that Schmidt hasn’t added any embellishment where the actual known events are concerned, so that, as we know that Lizzie Borden was acquitted, she very much keeps us guessing as to whether or not she actually did do it. I really appreciated the skill involved in weaving a story around facts in this way. The embellishment she adds is primarily in the characters and their emotions, not in events.

It is a very creepy book, but not in a thriller-y, feeling like someone is over your shoulder way. It’s more a pervasive, niggling sense that something is not right in this house. This is particularly evident in the chapters narrated by Lizzie. Schmidt’s Lizzie does not think in a conventional way, there is a lot of repetition in her sections as she has the same thought over and over again, and her senses seem more, well, sensitive than other people’s, for want of a better word. There’s often a feeling that things are crowding in on her, all the sounds and smells and sights are overwhelming to her. Personally, I kind of wish that this had been even more heightened, as I felt like I was more observing Lizzie being overwhelmed rather than sharing in that. Not only are her senses exaggerated, but she also seems to perceive things slightly differently: she talks about tastes singing and the wood of the old house popping.

Lizzie’s heightened senses and repetitive thought patterns lead to several motifs within the novel. She often says “The clock on the mantle ticked ticked”, although again, for me personally this fell slightly short – I would have liked this to be more pervasive, this awareness of the sound of time passing. There is also a conflation between the scents of sweetness and rot, talk of rotting teeth from sugar, the pear orchard outside and the bodies inside. This is probably the creepiest part of the novel, and I really enjoyed this aspect.

There was a lot about this book that I appreciated, but it is just that: I appreciated the skill and the techniques but didn’t really feel them. I felt like I was observing this novel at a distance and while I would recommend it, it’s more on an intellectual level than an enjoyable or enthusiastic one.

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