Reading Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done is like pressing down on a blossoming bruise. It is compelling, uncomfortable and somehow irresistible. Schmidt skilfully reimagines the true crime tale of Lizzie Borden, who in 1892 was accused of the brutal axe murders of her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, as a work of fiction. While Borden was acquitted of the murders and no one else was ever convicted, Schmidt does not leave any doubt about whodunit.
The gruesome events at the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts are narrated from the points of view of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, and the Bordens’ Irish housemaid, Bridget. Infiltrating the Borden household is the voice of a menacing stranger, Benjamin, who collides into the family’s bloody trajectory via the girls’ objectionable uncle, John. A thread of desperation connects all of the voices in this story. They are each, in their way, cemented in their misery.
The three women narrators all pine for escape. After a thwarted romance, Emma is forever tethered to her cloying and demanding sister, Lizzie. The housemaid, Bridget, dreams of returning to her homeland, Ireland, but is trapped under the financial thumb of her employer, Abby Borden. And puffed up with conceit after a grand tour of Europe, Lizzie imagines herself too sophisticated for the small life she leads in Fall River.
Schmidt explores the lives of these women with a sharp feminist lens. They are each trapped by the financial and social circumstances of being a woman in the late 19th century. That Lizzie Borden is a woman ironically becomes her saving grace when she is acquitted of the murder. The jury simply cannot believe a woman to be capable of such a heinous crime.
Schmidt weights this murderous tale with decay. The novel is thick with vomit, decomposing bodies, putrid fruit, rancid soup, rotten teeth, congealed blood, and stinking breath. But the decay is infused with sensuality. Schmidt is clearly fascinated with dissecting and describing the guts of life:
“Along the fence was a full-bloom pear arbour, the sickly-sweet smell of half-eaten fruit thrown to the ground. I thought of the worms underneath churning earth, climbing over each other until their soft jelly bodies rolled into one. I pulled a pear and ate, juices on fingers and chin. There was a sharp twinge towards the back of my mouth and I reached my index finger inside, felt another loose tooth. I took hold, pulled and twisted, threw the tooth under the pear arbour.”
The effect is overwhelming and claustrophobic, always teetering on the edge of too-muchness. It is the kind of book you want to read with a hand over one eye to shield your gaze.
The Borden family is a chilling study in violence, rage and seething sexuality. Lizzie and her orbiting cast are cut through with psychological wounds that eventually manifest as a brutal blood-letting. The undercurrents of the story run deep and dark, and Schmidt steers them artfully just far enough below the surface. All the while, the clock on the mantel tick ticks in the background menacingly.
Lizzie is a perfectly unhinged character, a maelstrom of instability and obsessiveness, petulance and pity, with a rushing undertow of maleficence. She continually revisits the bodies of her father and stepmother, both physically and in her mind, with an almost-devotion:
“At the tip of my mind I heard Mrs Borden call to me, ‘Come and see us Lizzie. Come see a secret.’ I didn’t want to let them down. I crept the stairs towards the dining room. I made sure I was alone. I held my breath. There under the white sheets, frightened and silent, their bodies held each other like first-time lovers. I closed my eyes while Father reached his arm around his wife and told her, ‘It will all be over soon.’
… I hid a smile underneath my palm and tasted salt. On my wrists there was a spatter of blood, tiny droplets that were still finding their way under my skin. I licked at my finger and wiped at it, erasing Father, erasing Mrs Borden from my body.”
Schmidt’s writing style is distinctive, full of brilliant and off-kilter imagery that reinforces the unsettling mood of the novel: ‘her mouth lion-wide’, ‘his long, bony jaw moved like a grip broiler’ and ‘voices were pin pricks in the ear’. Lizzie describes her father’s dead body ‘stretched out like a bone xylophone’. The universe created by Schmidt is defective. Her characters are deranged.
This is a confident debut novel and there are obvious parallels to draw between Schmidt’s work and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights. Both are based on actual 19th-century crimes – women accused of murder – and both were much hyped. But unlike Kent’s novel, where the reader is invited to have empathy for the central character, there is nothing redeeming about Schmidt’s portrait of Lizzie Borden.
Two recent novels that sit comfortably alongside Schmidt’s are the bloody and brutal 19th-century exploits of The North Water by Ian McGuire and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. And for another brilliant study of the mind of a murderer, MJ Hyland’s This is How is a cracker.
Schmidt is now working on her second novel. According to an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, it is about a woman with a decomposing baby in the back seat of her car. It seems the decay that set in during her debut will be with her for some time yet.
Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done, Hachette Australia 2017 PB 336pp $32.99
This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books.
Postscript: It would be remiss of me not to also mention that Schmidt is a librarian from Melbourne. Librarians are awesome, and Schmidt clearly is no exception.