See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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.

19 responses

    • To be honest Lisa, I only read it because I’m going to have a guess at what might be on the Stella Prize longlist – although this book certainly wasn’t for me, it has its fans.

  1. Yes, I saw this one and thought about trying it, but then decided no. Kind of glad I didn’t. I don’t mind gore and if you had known about the Lizzie story, you’d have expected that, but this seems way over the top in a lot of ways. It’s an odd story all around. So, you didn’t know the rhyme – ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother/father 40 whacks…’ – ha!

    • No, seems I’m the only person who didn’t know that rhyme!

      There’s quite a bit of gore in the book and while that was manageable, the characters’ indifference to it was a little disturbing! The thing that was most off-putting was the description of the (rotten) mutton soup that was continuously reheated for every meal – oily water and bits of mutton caught in beards – urgh.

    • No. I have a bit of reading regret… It did pop up on a lot of ‘best of’ lists last year though (I dismissed it because I don’t like birds and the especially pigeons…) – only read it because I’m scoping what might appear on the Stella Prize longlist in a few weeks time.

  2. I grew up not too far from where this happened, so it was always a part of local legend. There’s a little rhyme that goes with it (also mentioned above), that says “Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty wacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty one.”

    I have to say, I’m really quite intrigued at a movie willing to bill itself the classiest lesbian axe murderer movie ever. Hard to top that.

    I really like the cover, and wouldn’t even guess at the content based on it.

    • I reckon I’ll go and see the movie 😀 (and I noticed there’s a Netflix mini-series starring Christina Ricci as well, so I might watch that).

      The cover makes my toes curl (but that’s because I have a bird phobia). I think that cover was only used in Australia and the overseas edition had a similar layout but a picture of a rotten pear instead of the decapitated pigeon. Either is appropriate (and revolting) in the context of the story.

  3. I’m so intrigued by this book! I’ve seen it around lots of blogs and vlogs and it sounds like something I’d enjoy, but I really don’t know a lot about Lizzie Bordon either. I’ll have to get this one from the library and try it out.

  4. Last year I read a non-fiction book about the murder, which I found rather interesting. “The Borden Murders – Lizzie Borden & the Trial of the Century” by Sarah Miller. It is well researched and written. It was so thrilling, it was sometimes difficult to put it down. There are a lot of references, different motives and possible culprits. You can find my review here:
    I started the netflix’ series but got so disappointed since it started with a brother, which was not present in the book. They were only two sisters, if I remember correctly. Interesting story and there really was not that many people that could have done it. But, I guess we will never know!

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