Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

img_3048Longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2018, See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt is a book easily devoured in a weekend.  Based on the true story of the notorious killings of Andrew and Abby Borden this chilling retelling of the murder doesn’t just tell you about what may have happened – it slaps you right bang in the centre of the murder and the aftermath.

Narrated by four key characters: Lizzie Borden, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and a very mysterious stranger Benjamin – you never truly understand the reasoning behind the murder however, you have the overwhelming sense of fear when Lizzie (the accused, trialled and acquitted) takes over the narration.  Schmidt hints at the potential motivations for Lizzie to have committed the murders what with her fragile, yet cunning, personality, how aggrieved she felt at the new ‘mother’ in her life together with the apparent independence her sister was finally able to achieve.

Lizzie Borden took an axe; and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done; she gave her father forty-one.

It may say strange to say but I felt incredibly claustrophobic when reading this book.  First by the overwhelmingly gruesome sensory overload in the descriptions of decaying food, blood, parts of skulls and dead bodies:

I walked over to the stove, large enough to put someone inside, burn them good, and took the lid off a deep, blackened pot; an acidic smell.  I scooped my hand and dunked it into the soup…Meat shouldn’t taste like that

Second through the character’s narration: Bridget – the young maid, is trapped in the house – first out of duty, then loyalty and finally through financial restraints; Emma – who blames herself for the death of a younger sibling before Lizzie was born, seems tied to the house, tied to Lizzie unable to move forward with a suitor and destined to be a maiden forever; Benjamin who finds himself hiding in a very tight space; and Lizzie – Lizzie’s self indulgence, her victim state of mind and her morbid fascination with the bodies as they lay dead all culminates in a suffocating atmosphere.

Schmidt’s descriptions are so intense that you almost can taste the rotting food, smell the constant vomit and feel the blood in your hands.  A fantastic debut by Sarah Schmidt and a deservedly eerie novel longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2018.

As an aside the murder case in itself is fascinating in that the jury acquitted Lizzie (the daughter of Andrew and stepdaughter of Abby) on the basis that no woman could commit such an act of crime – well worth a follow on read once you have finished the book!


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