Stink. Bloody. Rotting. Decay. Putrid. Stench. Rancid. Filthy. These are the words that dominate Sarah Schmidt’s historical gothic novel, See What I Have Done. There’s also lots of sweat, bits of brains, vomit, decapitated pigeons, decomposing flesh, and blood spattered walls.
It’s the story of the 1892 axe-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Massachusetts. Forensics wasn’t what it is today – the murderer left little evidence. Eventually, the youngest daughter, Lizzie Borden, was arrested, spent ten months in jail and stood trial but was ultimately acquitted (due to a technicality and inconclusive evidence from witnesses).
I won’t get into the nitty-gritty of the case, nor the accuracy of the detail as presented by Schmidt (there are hundreds of reviews of this book and others related to the murders, if that’s your thing). I should point out that I am apparently the only person in the world who knew nothing about this case until reading See What I Have Done. Absolutely nothing. So again, it’s pointless commenting on accuracy but I do have thoughts on Schmidt’s writing style and the way she tells the story.
Initially, I was engrossed. Schmidt gives various accounts of the murder from the perspective of five narrators – Lizzie; Emma, the eldest daughter; Bridget, the maid; John, the uncle; and a hired hitman, Benjamin. Aside from Emma (who was away at the time of the murders), the others all had a motive. Schmidt reveals these motives early but as the story progresses, all things seem to point to Lizzie (whose case isn’t helped by the fact that she’s an unreliable narrator).
A few quibbles – I was disappointed that the trial was not covered in detail as it left the ending a little flat. Secondly, I wasn’t sure about the implied sexual relationship between Lizzie and John – fictitious? If so, somewhat gratuitous. I also struggled with the characterisation of Lizzie as a petulant child (she was 32 at the time of the murders) and wondered if the details about her abusive father; her bitter stepmother; and her strange, dependent relationship with Emma, were included to justify her behaviour?
Finally, I found the language and imagery overdone – it’s done well but the filth, blood, horror and menacing tone is relentless. These quotes, all from one page –
There was a dollop of syrup-red on the banister. I touched it, let it spread over my fingertip then brought it to my mouth. I tasted blood, the kind that sings… My cheeks recognised the tart metallic. I had tasted blood like this so many times before.
The underside piece of skull was coloured blood, its flesh still holding on to strands of greying hair. I lifted it to my face, inhaled; a tiny scream inside my nose and mouth.
…a small spatter of blood on the white duvet cover, two neatly ironed pillow shams covering feather-down pillows, a chunk of plaited hair in the middle of the bed and, beside that, another piece of skull. The taste of metallic sulphur on my tongue.
And no, I didn’t pick a particularly gruesome page.
When I finished the book and turned to the interwebs for my ‘Lizzie Borden’ search, the first thing that popped up was praise for the 2018 Sundance movie, Lizzie. It’s billed as the ‘classiest lesbian axe murderer movie ever’ and I think that’s probably a good note to finish on.
2/5 My lack of knowledge about the Borden case was what kept me reading.
It’s all about the pears – They were delicious and dripped down my wrists, sticky and sweet-smelling.