In your debut novel See What I Have Done (2017), we are brought inside the dysfunctional household of the Border family, only to be trapped, along with the characters, in a suffocating atmosphere of sweat, sweltering heat, mutilated pigeons, rotten food, a plate of leftovers, and ripening fruit. It’s claustrophobic. It’s salty, dirty, smeared in blood. It’s about to explode.
The novel is a fictionalized account of the case of Lizzie Borden, one of the most notorious unsolved true crime mysteries. On the morning of 4th August 1892, in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby were murdered with a hatchet in their home. Andrew’s youngest daughter, the 32-year-old Lizzie, was the first person to find the mutilated bodies. Andrew’s oldest daughter Emma, was away from home at the time. The Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan, was also in the house, and John, Andrew’s first wife brother, had been an overnight guest. Lizzie, the main suspect of having committed the two murders, was arrested, tried and acquitted by a jury unable to believe that a woman could do such a thing.
Many theories about the possible murderers have been advanced over time: a robber might have broken in the house; the maid might have killed the couple out of revenge for being badly treated; Emma might have committed the crime, after having established an alibi at Fairhaven; John, the girl’s uncle, who seldom visited, could have murdered the couple because of disputes over the family’s patrimony; there were also evidence that the family had been sick on the previous days, probably because of poison; the girls and their uncle might have planned everything, acting in some sort of collusion. Lizzie remains the main suspect though: she had a strained relationship with her stepmother, and believed Abby was after Andrew’s money; Lizzie might have resented her domineering father’s tight rein on the household, and, as a spinster, might have felt trapped; or, finally, the fact that Andrew had recently slaughtered her pet pigeons might have been the last straw, triggering her thirst for revenge.
You explore each of these possibilities. The events in the household unfold in first person narration, in alternating perspectives, through the voices of the main characters, lurching back and forth between the day of the murder, the day leading up to it, and, briefly, its aftermath. All of the narrators are unreliable: Lizzie is at times childish, at times fully aware of what is happening; Emma is resentful of both her father and her sister, and provides a glimpse into their past; the maid Bridget holds a grudge against Abby; and the fictional character Benjamin, an outsider hired by the girls’ uncle to help solve a problem with Andrew, is clearly a deranged man.
The narration moves in a fragmented way between each of the four characters, and each event is examined from multiple perspectives, gathering new and often contradictory meanings at each turn. While Lizzie’s voice is impressionistic, Emma is sharp – and both are immersed in anger and frustration. Bridget and Benjamin, as outsiders who get very close to the household, provide an emotionally distanced perspective of the events, commenting them from a vantage point of view. The narrators’ voices seem to project and blur one another.
After the death of their mother, Emma assumes the task of caring for her emotionally instable and controlling sister. The girls love and hate each other at the same time. While sharing a symbiotic connection, they also compete for their father’s love and attention. Both Emma and Lizzie regard as a betrayal Andrew’s marriage to Abby – but Lizzie is more successful in faking affection when necessary.
The fact that Andrew closely controls every aspect of the girl’s lives – and keeps all the doors and windows tightly locked for fear of criminals – only intensifies the feeling of entrapment, of being stuck in life or confined in a place full of people one hates. Emma, Lizzie, Bridget, Abby, even the reader – everyone is eager to get out of this house as soon as possible. This house is a trap about to burst open, exposing to the public eye the family’s very dirty laundry.
You are not so much interested in exploring the question of who may have committed the crime, as in portraying a deeply dysfunctional family. At the core of your novel we find a tangle of failed relationships, supressed emotions, madness, ambition, unfulfilled desires, and rebellion.
The book reminded me of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (2013). As Kent’s debut, yours also deals with the reimagined version of a true crime, told through different perspectives. Both novels draw a complex portrayal of the main female character, by giving those characters a voice, and making use of poetic devices. Differently from Kent’s book, though, your novel seeks no redemption, and you are not interested in imagining a new version of what happened: on the contrary, you plunge deeply into the raw violence of the events of the Borden case; you test the place where this violence might have bordered on love, and where love turned into rotten fruit – the mouths “thick with lost conversation”.
The strongest aspect of your book, for me, is your writing style, infused with sound and smell and touch, in a sensory overload that forces us into feeling claustrophobic. You build momentum by obsessively repeating words, like in a fever; you make use of alliterations (“Side by side our bodies stitched together and I felt like I was drowning in salt and sweat”) and references to small sounds (like the birds walking on the roof) so as to make the paragraphs crackle with tension; you make palpable the heat, the hate, the disgust; you probe the expectations about what women are capable of.
Despite the sweltering heat, the house is kept tight shut. Inside, rage is simmering, food is rotting, sweat and salt and blood are running, the walls are closing in on everyone, “air coming in and out like an ocean tide, smelling of old meat and butter”. The clock is ticking, we hear birds walking on the roof, voices beating against our ear, something scraping, someone swallowing, a thud, and then another. A body trembling, “a landslide of feeling.” Pears are ripening in the garden, falling from the tree, swelling with sugar. We smell something rancid, we taste salt, someone vomits, everyone stinks, “the smell of sour yoghurt snaking out from somewhere inside her”. Someone pokes the finger into sweaty, open flesh – “soft skin opened like a rock; hard underneath hard underneath cold”. Something has gone sour, and you force us to hold it in our mouths, trapped.
“She sounded like a killing wind, moaned low and deep” ― Sarah Schmidt,
“I would wake with my sister in my mouth, hair strands, a taste of sour milk, like she was possessing me.” ― Sarah Schmidt,
“‘Do you still love me?’
I hardened: ribs ached, fingers tired, shrivelled. It always came down to love. I wanted to say ‘No’. Then ‘Not always’, then ‘Sometimes I wish you were dead’.
‘Yes,’ I told her. ‘I do.’” ― Sarah Schmidt,
“I was a pain inside, the kind without a central source” ― Sarah Schmidt,
“Everything slowed and the walls pulled themselves away from their foundations. There was no more silence. Everything was loud and thunderous the closer I got to the top of the stairs. On the landing, the heat was a tyrant of rage and pushed my mouth open, forcing my breath to be shallow then big. I heard myself scream then laugh.” ― Sarah Schmidt,
“I had that feeling: happiness and loss hitched together. It felt like I was missing a limb.” ― Sarah Schmidt,
About the book
- Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017, 336 p. Goodreads
- Tinder Press, 2017, 336 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- This book was knidly sent to me by Atlantic Monthly Press for review
- I read the novel for the 20 Books of Summer challenge
- The Lizzie Borden case inspired The Legend of Lizzie Borden, an ABC film (IMDb, 1975); Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, a U.S. television movie (IMDb, 2014) and the sequel The Lizzie Borden Chronicles (IMDb, 2015), both with Christina Ricci in the title role; “The Fall River Axe Murders,” a short story by Angela Carter (Black Venus, 1985); “The Older Sister,” an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Season 1, Episode 17, first aired January 22, 1956), written by Robert C. Dennis and Lillian de la Torre, and directed by Robert Stevens; and Lizzie (IMDb, 2017) a film directed by Craig William Macneill and written by Bryce Kass, starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart.