Family hatred and putrified love, the chilling re-imaging of an infamous true crime: See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt

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Lizzie Borden, born 1820, was infamously accused and later acquitted of the brutal murders of her father, Andrew Borden and step-mother Abby Borden in their family home in Fall River, Massachusetts. This, in the briefest of terms, is the synopsis of the Borden murders – and is far from fiction. The story of the Borden murders remains to this day an unsolved case and continues to attract theories and speculation of the curious-minded over a century after the event. One only has to flick through the first few chapters of Sarah Schmidt’s chilling reimagining of these brutal murders to understand why this is.

“How quickly does the body forget its history?”

Schmidt’s retelling of a story that has been picked to the bone over the past decades is remarkably fresh and original, fleshing out the deep resentments and dangerously toxic love that ties the enigmatic Borden family together in its suffocating union. Seamlessly hopping from days, months and years before the murders, to the day of and immediate aftermath of them, Schmidt ingeniously unravels the strange and unpredictable lives of the Borden’s, and those haplessly pulled into their orbit.

Following the perspectives of Lizzie Borden herself, Emma her elder sister, Bridget the family maid and the mysterious and lawless Benjamin, the narrative never allows for a dull moment as it cleverly unpicks crucial events in the Borden’s erratic history. The novel impressively captures the nuances of Lizzie and Emma’s complex filial relationship of rivalry, jealously, compulsive love and deep-seated resentment.

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The real Lizzie Borden

Of course infamous Lizzie Borden herself is the true focal point of the story. She is artfully depicted as the tempest amidst the respected family, and is a character as complex as she is unhinged. The baby sister who never outgrew her childish impulses, the spiteful prankster, the pious worshipper, the perpetually bored and unfulfilled society girl. A woman capable of both loving to the point of obsession and hating to the point self-destruction. See What I Have Dones portrayal of this historically notorious woman is both unsettling and believable, and will leave readers feeling as though they are peeking through the windows of 92 Second Street and eavesdropping on this interesting woman’s inner sanctum.

“How far a woman could travel if she really put her mind to it. And I put my mind to it.”

My only real criticism with the novel comes from Benjamin, whose inclusion is somewhat jarring with an otherwise faultless narrative. Although his lack of real connection to the Borden family does offer an interesting fly-on-the-wall perspective to the inner turmoil of the family circle, his own backstory (albeit an interesting one) occasionally intrudes on a story that otherwise focuses in minutiae detail on the family, and in parts the story loses it’s focus. Nonetheless, the character’s inclusion, though sometimes coming across dissonant, is never disinteresting and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome.

See What I Have Done is a novel to be devoured and savoured. It will transport you to 19th CenturyMassachusetts, to the sitting room of the Borden’s, to the stifling days before a murder that still reverberates today.

Overall rating: 8.8/ 10 

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