Reading Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done is like continually pressing down on a blossoming bruise. It is compelling, uncomfortable and somehow irresistible. Schmidt skilfully reimagines the true crime tale of Lizzie Borden who was accused of the brutal axe murders of her father and step-mother in 1892 as a work of fiction. While Borden was acquitted of the murders and no-one else was ever convicted, Schmidt does not leave any room for doubt over whodunnit.
Schmidt weighs this murderous tale with decay. The novel is thick with decomposing bodies, putrid fruit, rancid mutton soup, rotten teeth, congealed blood, and stinking breath. The Borden family is a chilling study in violence, rage and seething sexuality. Lizzie and her supporting cast are cut-through with psychological wounds that eventually manifest as a brutal blood-letting. The undercurrents of the story run deep and dark. Schmidt steers them artfully just far enough below the surface. All the while, the clock on the mantel tick ticks in the background menacingly.
Schmidt’s writing style is distinctive and this is a confident debut novel. Her writing is full of brillant and off-kilter images “her mouth lion-wide”, “his long, bony jaw moved like a grip broiler” and “voices were pin pricks in the ear”. This imagery reinforces the unsettling and claustrophobic mood of the novel. The universe created by Schmidt is defective. Her characters are deranged.
There are obvious parallels to draw between Schmidt’s novel and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights. Both are 19th century true crime tales of 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.
See What I Have Done has been touted as the next The Girl on The Train and the book carries a cover blurb by Paula Hawkins. I haven’t read Hawkins so I can’t comment whether this comparison is merely clever marketing or something more substantial.
However, two other recent novels which sit comfortably alongside Schmidt’s are the bloody and brutal 19th century exploits in 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 backseat of her car. It seems the decay that set in during her debut will be with us for some time yet.
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.