Hardcover, 328 pagesPublished August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.
On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.
As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.
Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a novel that has the advantage of having a truly titillating premise and a built-in fan base of readers who already know of Miss Lizzie Borden’s infamy:
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
If you’ve ever sung that “nursery rhyme” to yourself, you’re already at least a step ahead. See What I Have Done has its roots in the factual 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden–the characters are even based on and named for the real people who were in and out of the house on the fateful day of the murders. With those common facts out of the way, Schmidt rolls up her sleeves and dives into the task of reconstructing that fateful day and retelling the notorious story of Miss Lizzie Borden.
Let me start by first of all saying that the cover art and title of this novel are both phenomenal. In a bookstore setting (whether in person or online) I’d definitely reach for this book, even if just to see what it’s about!
With that out of the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also add that Schmidt has a true talent for finding her readers’ pressure points and picking at them consistently, a skill that sets a suspenseful novel apart from a predictable one. I can see this author’s method working for so many readers, pulling them in and making them feel immersed in these characters’ very thoughts. But, it didn’t work for me. In fact, there were times when this novel was an uphill struggle for me.
The one thing that will always stick out to me about this novel is Lizzie’s temperament. Throughout the novel it was eerily strange despite her obviously childlike temperament, menacing just below the surface in a way that was clearly deliberate on the author’s part. Whether she was not in her right mind in a vaguely sociopathic way or in a childlike way hinting at mental retardation I could not fully tell (though I’m leaning toward the latter), but it certainly functioned to add a little unpredictability and upheaval in the otherwise monotonous 19th century lives these characters seemed to lead.
However, there was something about the execution of this novel that really turned me off—possibly intentionally—but I definitely didn’t take to it the way I would have wanted to. Lizzie’s personality was like an itch under my skin, one I wanted to scratch until she was gone completely and long forgotten about. Instead of building suspense or anxiety, her twitchiness and oddities really just annoyed me to the point that I could no longer stand her. I wanted to be out of her head—away from her altogether at times—at any cost. Only, her chapters were by far the most interesting, as the others seemed to melt into the background for me as a reader. The characters’ voices didn’t pull me in; their actions didn’t interest me. So, that left me with Lizzie, and you can imagine the conundrum that left me in as a reader! 🙂 There was just too much of it. A titillating hint here and there is intriguing; 5 hints toward her psychological oddities per page, every page is annoying. That’s what created that itching sensation under my skin, the tap dancing on my reader Spidey senses.
The thing is, Sarah Schmidt’s ability to affect her reader in that way is a true gift, a skill that’s difficult to hone and display. So, just because it didn’t work for me personally doesn’t mean that I don’t see the cleverness and mental dexterity it took to execute that aspect of this novel, and for that I tip my hat off to her. I’d recommend this novel to lovers of The Village (2004) or of historical mysteries in general. There’s absolutely a fan base out here for Sarah Schmidt and See What I Have Done, and I look forward to giving her another shot the next time she hits the shelves. 3 stars ***
**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**
Sarah Schmidt is a Melbourne based writer who happens to work at a public library. See What I Have Done is her first novel.