See What I Have Done is the debut novel of Australian author Sarah Schmidt about the famous axe murders in 1892 at Massachusetts, USA, famously thought to have been committed by a woman named Lizzie Borden, who was the victims’ daughter (and stepdaughter, if we want to be really technical). Lizzie was acquitted but remains to be the prime suspect — everyone is convinced she was the murderer, and it remains a subject of speculation more than a century after the events.
Sarah was inspired to tell write a book about this more than a decade ago from a pamphlet she found at a secondhand bookshop. She tells more of that story here, if you fancy having a read. If you’ve read any of her interviews or been to any of her talks, you would be familiar with the anecdote about her staying in the Borden house as part of her research.
Creepy, eh? But I guess that is why the book does so well at putting us right there, as an invisible witness to the goings-on within the household. The novel was very atmospheric — I read it whilst the weather was in the middle of changing from autumn to winter (which is not at all like the 31℃ weather we recently experienced here in London!) but I could see and feel myself being in that house with the perception of claustrophobia, and the sticky heat hovering closely over of my skin.
I had no prior knowledge of the Borden murders or that famous rhyme relating to it. I did a quick Google and skimmed through Wikipedia which provided the basic details of it — Lizzie, the daughter, was the prime suspect but was acquitted. There are many theories floating around attempting to prove both sides of the argument but I didn’t really want to know. However, the book kept my interest because I wanted to see how the author was going to paint and lead the story to its famous conclusion. Was she going to defend Lizzie? The father was definitely quite hard on his family; I could see why they would want to rebel and just be free and rid of him. But Lizzie also came off as somewhat of a narcissistic personality — she was manipulative of her sister and, to some extent, her father; she wanted things to go her way and have first dibs on the best things available to her and her sister. I even thought she might be a little on the autism spectrum in that she did not seem to think about the emotional effects of what she says or does to other people.
In the end, See What I Have Done doesn’t outrightly tell you who was the murderer. Okay, it could have been Lizzie Borden, but the book felt more of a study of characters and how their relationships and interactions with each other created such a toxic environment in that household that could have driven Lizzie to murder. Was Mr Borden’s severe manner the driving force? What is Lizzie like as a person, and could she really be someone who can commit such a crime? Who are the other people in that household and how did they think and participate in the overall family dynamics?
It has now been a month later after its publication in the UK, and See What I Have Done has been praised for its evocative way of putting its reader in the Borden house. I agree that it does it very well but I also found the character relationships interesting! I managed to devour this book in two days — mostly during my brief commute to work. It managed to take me out and away from the annoyingly packed train carriage during rush hour, and I would sometimes have to blink away the image of that pear tree as I jostle past people at the end of my tube journey. See how it works for you when you’re sitting on a beach, maybe? 😉
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“I could tell the officer all of this because it was the truth. All of this happened in the house at some stage. Should it matter when it happened?”
– Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done
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What are the best atmospheric reads you’ve read?