Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sara Schmidt


See What I Have Done by Sara Schmidt

Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her father forty whacks 

When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one

– Old jump rope rhyme 

When I was growing up in [the dark ages] 1980s Massachusetts, we still learned that rhyme. Though Fall River was over an hour south of the town I grew up in, Lizzie Borden still felt like our own homegrown boogieman. Little wonder, then, that I remain fascinated by the legend of Lizzie Borden. Even now, 125 years after the infamous murders, there is no firm concensus of what occurred that day.

Sara Schmidt brings something new and visceral to the legend. Centered around the day of the murders and the times immediately before and after, we are allowed to take nothing for granted in this tale. The story is told from four different perspectives: Lizzie herself, her older sister, Emma, Bridget, the family’s downtrodden servant, and Benjamin, a mysterious young man with a rather violent disposition. The narrative skips across perspectives and across time, slowly moving us toward what actually happened in the house on that hot summer day.

What struck me about this book was how horrible everyone was. Andrew Borden is a miserly wretch, Abby an unstable, clingy lump. Lizzie is spoiled, manipulative, and childlike. Truly, the only people in the house you feel for are Emma Borden and Bridget the maid, both trying to seek their own way out of a toxic household.

The Borden murders took place on August 4th, 1892, in an era before air-conditioning. The Borden house has no electricity or indoor plumbing, and everyone is wearing long sleeves, long skirts, and high collars. Schmidt takes full advantage of the season and makes the book feel claustrophobic and oppressive in the description of the sticky, unmoving air, the rank smells, and the congealing food. The horror of this story is less about the violence of the murders themselves, but of being trapped in a truly nightmarish situation.

In all, this was an interesting take on the Lizzie Borden legend. While it took  bit to get used to the way Lizzie Borden is voiced in this book (she has a manic style of speech and thought that reminds me of the poem The Bells by Edgar Allen Poe), once over that hump I found the book impossible to put down. Fans of the Borden legend, or of the mystery and/or horror genres should enjoy this book.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

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