#BookReview SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE by Sarah Schmidt
@ikillnovel US @groveatlantic UK @TinderPress
There have been times when Lizzie was away from home that I nursed absence. Always two ways of feeling: relief and loneliness.
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, Sarah Schmidt's debut novel, examines one of the most infamous true crimes in American history: the axe murders of Andrew and Abigail "Abby" Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts on August 4, 1892. Andrew's younger daughter Lizzie was charged and tried for the murders of her father and her step-mother. Schmidt's literary historical thriller is a superb work of realism and naturalism, filled with the kind of details which can lead the reader to learn what actually happened at 230 2nd Street that sweltering summer day. The novel starts with a vengeance, with Lizzie, in the first person, yelling, "Someone's killed Father."
The story unfolds in chronological order, but Schmidt also uses reverse chronology so that the reader can know which events lead up to the murders. Our unreliable narrators, and potential suspects, are, in alternating chapters, four characters: Lizzie (32), Emma Borden (41), Lizzie's sister, Bridget Sullivan (26), the Borden's Irish maid, and Benjamin, a man who has come to Fall River at the behest of someone close to the Borden family. Lizzie is clearly an unstable child-woman still trying to please her father and her step-mother, but also misbehaving and acting in a suspicious manner. Emma has spent her life taking care of her troubled younger sister, giving up any chance of love and marriage, and an escape from her father's gloomy and parsimonious household.
Bridget is one of all "the Bridget's," young Irish women who fled Ireland during the 19th century famines and came to work as domestics in the United States. She is overworked and underpaid, and privy to nearly all details of the Borden household. There was a great deal of anti-Catholic nativism occurring in the United States, so Bridget would have been suspected simply for being an Irish immigrant. Benjamin is a mystery man and, perhaps, a dark horse. Could he be the person who broke into the home and stole some mementos a year before?
The novel's pacing, too, depicts the excitement, the horror and the tedium which happens in every crime investigation--and in every unhappy family. The plot evolves firmly from accurate historical accounts of the Borden family, the crimes, and the subsequent trial. The author knows that the devil is in the details. Andrew Borden is wealthy yet frugal. He is sparing with his love as well. Emma and Lizzie are two adult daughters living at home, spinsters in a time when middle-class women were married and living with husbands and children in their own homes. Abby is Andrew's second wife, and her relationship with her step-daughters is difficult. There are too many hens and impotence rules the roost. Money could easily have been the main motive, but the ever-present tension in the household could have driven someone to murder.
Yet, of course, this is a work of fiction, of literary fiction and of crime fiction. Schmidt's lyrical and beautiful prose captures both the striking and the mundane which occur before, during and after the murders. Her powerful interpretation of these people and events is fueled by a deep understanding of how petty conflicts and co-dependence accumulate until there is a need for some sort of resolution, release and relief. Unfortunately for Andrew and Abby, the catharsis resulted in their deaths.
SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE is an extraordinary novel which shines light on the iconic crime, the darkness within families and the human soul, and the banality of evil. Sarah Schmidt is a gifted and intelligent writer. She is a major new talent, and I await her next novel eagerly.