See What I Have Done
By Sarah Schmidt
Out 4 May from Tinder Press, £12.99 hardback
Unsolved mysteries stick in our collective memory like burrs, a constant irritant to our curiosity. Every so often someone comes along with a solution — often disproved, or at least hotly argued — a film, or a reimagining. The newest of these is Sarah Schmidt’s haunting debut novel, See What I Have Done, revisiting the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, long presumed to have been whacked to death with a hatchet by his daughter and her stepdaughter, Lizzie. She was arrested, tried, and in June of 1893, acquitted, living on until her 66th year, dying in 1927, of pneumonia.
That’s a jarring fact — that Lizzie Borden, who feels so Victorian in every depiction, persisted into the Twentieth century, through the first World War and nearly to the Depression.
It comes as an aftershock, though, for every page of See What I Have Done reeks with visceral disturbance. It is not a delicate novel for delicate constitutions, but a story of fevers and hot skin, oppressive miasmas and rancid food. People sweat and bleed and slurp and vomit; the murder at the story’s climax is gruesome, all splitting skulls, twitching corpses, and eyes loosed from their moorings.
The Borden family is no less corrupted, as rotten as the days-old mutton stew they eat to such ill effect. They seethe with fury and their inability to express themselves erupts into frequent violence. Mr Borden strikes Lizzie when she stands up to him, then murders her pigeons, one by one, with an axe. Emma strikes Lizzie when the younger girl accuses her of sinning. Mrs Borden strikes Lizzie, telling her she’s a disappointment to her father. And Mrs Borden strikes herself, repeatedly, as punishment for imagined inadequacies as a wife and woman.
Bridget, their servant, tries repeatedly to leave, and is thwarted each time. Mrs Borden manipulates her via emotional blackmail and then by confiscating her savings, trapping her in the household.
Though there is a guest room, the girls sleep in adjoining rooms — one is really supposed to be a closet — and it’s as claustrophobic as you’d imagine. There’s no getting away from each other, and that’s very much how Lizzie wants it. More than one family member fantasises about crawling inside a mother, sister, father, the better to understand them, and seek sanctuary there. Emma, who like Bridget, dreams of leaving this toxic home, is denied the escape of marriage. She understands that her father wants her near, to keep Lizzie in line.
There are hints of another, older family murder, of two babies. There’s a mysterious uncle, and a stranger who may be a hired killer.
Again and again we return to Lizzie, with justifiably morbid fascination. She presents as seriously unhinged, but also as a sad case of arrested development, a little girl who wanted to love and be loved by everyone, who grew into a woman consumed by hatred for those who denied her this emotional due.
Schmidt has an opinion about the murders, and gives us a perpetrator, making for a satisfying and unsettling ending. She is a bold writer, unafraid to depict this gruesome family in hellish detail. (The gritty, grubbiness of everyday biology, so graphically described, calls to mind the work of Ottessa Moshfegh.) Schmidt’s handling of different perspectives is assured, and she moves her story backwards and forwards in time with equal facility.
Based on this debut, it’s clear that Schmidt is one to watch. See What I Have Done is not an easy read, but it’s a memorable one — for all the right reasons.