See What I Have Done
It’s easy to understand the appeal of a reimagined true crime to novelists. The basics of characters and a scaffolding of plot are readymade and solid – somewhere substantial for the writer to stand while branching off into imagination. Cases with inconclusive outcomes must be especially tempting, and the opportunity to solve a century-old puzzle provides a rare pleasure for readers, too. The challenge for the novelist, then, is to bring something special to a well-known story in the midst of all these givens, especially when there’s been no new information about the crime.
Sarah Schmidt faces this hurdle as she tackles one of America’s most famous unsolved murders in her debut novel See What I Have Done, about the Lizzie Borden case. The real story has passed into folklore: on August 4, 1892, Andrew Borden, a wealthy but stingy and broadly disliked businessman, and his second wife, Abby, were found dead in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. They had both been horrifically murdered with an axe. (They were not, however, given 41 and 40 whacks respectively, despite the children’s rhyme.) Living in the house at the time was Andrew’s daughter from his first marriage – 32-year-old Sunday school teacher Lizzie – and their maid, Bridget Sullivan. John Morse, the brother of Andrew’s late first wife, was also staying, ostensibly to visit his nieces. Andrew’s elder daughter, 41-year-old Emma, lived there too but was away visiting friends. In real life, Lizzie was tried and acquitted of the murders.
Schmidt does indeed succeed in bringing something very special to this story: her language, atmosphere and characterisation. See What I Have Done has four revolving first-person narrators: Lizzie, her sister, Emma, Bridget the maid, and an invented character named Benjamin, a violent young drifter with plenty of motive and opportunity, brought along by Uncle John, who isn’t happy about Andrew’s treatment of his nieces. The voices of the women are mostly wonderful, with Lizzie’s chapters the creepy highlight.
Ah, yes. The creepiness. Novels that manage to spin a genuinely skin-crawling atmosphere, such as Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, are rare, and Schmidt is a master. The relationships between all the Bordens are a smorgasbord of wrong. Emma and Lizzie have a kind of love–hate co-dependency. When Emma was a child, she habitually referred to herself and Lizzie together as a joint “I”. The girls call their stepmother, Abby, “Mrs Borden”. The house itself is perfectly, claustrophobically drawn. There are bad smells everywhere, possibly from dead animals trapped in wall cavities. The oppressive heat, the repressed, trapped single people, Lizzie’s pets – pigeons, the creepiest of birds in Schmidt’s hands, which soon meet their own gruesome end – the clothes they wear, even the food the household eats are all rendered with pitch-perfect, stomach-crawling ickiness. It’s not ostentatious – there are moments of perfect restraint, which only makes it more macabre. See What I Have Done has buckets of blood, bits of skull, assorted viscera and a surprising amount of vomit, and towards the end, at Lizzie’s trial, decomposing bodies and liquefying brains and “chiselled white-yellow bone” skulls. It’s impossible to keep reading at times but equally impossible to stop.
“I wiped my palm across my face,” Lizzie narrates, “let the feather fall onto the carpet, noticed tiny droplets of blood sitting on my fingers. I put them to my nose then my mouth. I licked, tasted Father, tasted myself. I swallowed. I looked down at my skirt, discovered blood spots. I stared at the stains, watched them become rivers across my lap …”
And here, Bridget describes the end of Lizzie’s pigeons: “In the backyard by the barn stood Mr Borden, his jacket on the grass, white shirtsleeves rolled to elbow. He held an axe in one hand, an upside-down pigeon in the other, its wings wide, stiff from the blood rushing to its head, the shock of what was awaiting. My knees got to trembling and my bladder gave way a little, wet me between my legs.”
There are a number of small details that Schmidt elegantly weaves into her interpretation. The family was robbed the year before – or was that Lizzie, stealing from her own family? The violent nausea that befell the household might have been the days-old mutton broth, boiled and reboiled, rotten in the heat, or perhaps someone was poisoning them. Schmidt’s remarkable language means that every sentence deserves to be re-read. “The back stairs were a thunder of boots” is the way Lizzie describes the police in the house. “Summer ran up my neck like a knife,” she says to herself.
The weight of the story, though, and its success, rests on the character of Lizzie, around whom everyone else revolves. In Schmidt’s rendering, she is utterly compelling. She sounds younger than her years, fey and narcissistic and crazy and babyish and dead evil by turns.
“I’m not quite sure,” Lizzie says to Bridget, after she discovered the bodies. “They might have used an axe. Like taking down a tree.” Later, she remembers an interaction with her father: “I stretched my legs until my stockinged ankle showed from underneath my skirt … I wanted to pounce on him like a kitten and dig my claws into his legs, swipe a paw into his cheek and watch the bloodletting … I’d lick my kitten tongue over blood and cheek, clean him with my fur and preen.”
Debut novels are frequently about compromises and Schmidt has not gone the full Eimear McBride, although the seeds are there in some of Lizzie’s italicised interior monologue. Benjamin is a convenient character whose voice sounds awkwardly similar to the girls, and later in the book is some shoehorned first-person hearsay, to circumvent the technical difficulties of first-person narration. Emma’s chapters at times seem designed to broaden the book’s appeal. None of this undercuts Schmidt’s achievement. For the originality of its voice and the power of its language and imagery, See What I Have Done deserves to be considered a Gothic classic. LS
Hachette, 328pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 15, 2017 as "Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done". Subscribe here.