Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Hachette Publishers 2017 (I own a copy, courtesy of the publishers)

Arguably one of the most anticipated Australian debuts of 2017, the word of mouth marketing campaign for Sarah Schmidt's See What I Have Done began late last year, when the book was featured at the Christmas Roadshow as a book to look out for.  A fictional account of the 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, allegedly at the hands of Andrew's daughter Lizzie, melds the genres of historical fiction and thriller, providing a tantalising premise akin to that of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites.

For many people, the name Lizzie Borden won't be an unfamiliar one.  She is the subject of a chilling rhyme, and it's from this that the book gets its title:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

And yet, the book calls into question Lizzie's guilt.  Did she really kill her father and stepmother?  And if so, might she have had a good reason.

The answers are not so simple.

Told from four different points of view, See What I Have Done paints a complicated portrait of family life at 92 Second Street, the house where the murders took place.  There is Lizzie, 32 years old and still living at home, teaching Sunday school.  Her voice is an eerily childlike one, hinting at some sort of stunting in her emotional growth.  Then there is Lizzie's elder sister, Emma, also still living at home after a broken engagement.  Lizzie and Emma are close, but Emma often feels stifled by her sister's neediness towards her.  For Lizzie, Emma is a kind of mother figure, as she took over much of the care of her younger sister after the death of their mother at two years old.  Lizzie is not a sweet, innocent kind of needy-- she is in fact a controlling, manipulative and competitive sort, and at times her treatment of Emma is quite cruel.  Yet Emma seems to let her get away with it, and only seems to gain some measure of control over her life once she goes to Fairhaven to stay with a friend.  She has just begun to relish the freedom associated with not replying to Lizzie's letters when the murders occur.  The second point of view in the book belongs to Bridget, a young, Irish maid who appears to be grossly overworked by the Borden women.  She is annoyed by their strict rules of locking all of the doors in the house, and has made two attempts to leave their service, but both times she has been thwarted by Mrs Borden.  The second incident was on the day of the murders.

But it is the final point of view which is the strangest.  It belongs to Benjamin, a young itinerant man who is approached by the Borden girls' Uncle John, and asked to put the hard word to Andrew Borden about the way he treats his daughters.  Benjamin and John travel to Fall River, with the express intention of Benjamin intimidating Andrew Borden, and along the journey, we learn that Benjamin has had a somewhat violent past and has a reputation for being a little bit of a thug.

Not having known much about this story beforehand, I'm not sure if Benjamin was a real character or not, but his presence at the house on the day of the murders does serve an interesting role in getting the story told, particularly when Lizzie's account is less than sound.

If the author's intention here was to leave the reader thoroughly creeped out, then she has certainly achieved her goal.  Lizzie's voice was unsettling and somewhat manic, and led me around and around in circles until I was thoroughly disoriented.  At times, the writing in this novel became almost a stream of consciousness, with certain onomatopoeic words repeated for effect-- such at tick tick for a clock on the mantle.  Most of the action in the novel takes place in the one house or the surrounding area, on the one day, and the result of this plus the off-beat sense provided by the writing style is a kind of tense claustrophobia-- akin to when a secret is being kept by people in close proximity, which in a sense, was true.

This was an interesting novel, but I wasn't as blown away by it as I had hoped that I would be.  Instead of the kind of historical recreation that I adore, this novel took more cues from a kind of tense, domestic thriller, akin to books like Gone Girl, minus a shocking twist at the end.  I think the writing in this book was stunning, the metaphors and similes fresh and stimulating, the characterisation of Lizzie and Emma in particular was spectacular, and the novel completely distinguished itself from anything else out there.  But I wanted more.  I wanted secrets and twists, and the novel just didn't go deep enough into the why for that.

I gave this book 4 stars.