See What I Have Done

Image of See What I Have Done
Release Date: 
July 31, 2017
Atlantic Monthly Press

". . . prose is clever and taut and generously seasoned with nouns verbing their way into literary history."

Most schoolchildren have heard the ditty “Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her father forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her mother forty-one.” What else is there to know about the grizzly murders that took place in 1892? For starters, although evidence strongly suggests that Lizzie Borden was guilty, 19th century forensics wasn’t what it is today, and she was acquitted.

If Lizzie didn’t commit the crimes, who did? If she did, what was her motive? Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel, See What I Have Done, opens with the line, “He was still bleeding.” And ends with “I raised my arms above my head.” The story in between speculates on both of those questions in deliciously disturbing, gruesomely grim detail.

Schmidt presents the Bordens as a family so repressed and creepy that one can easily understand why Lizzie might have taken an axe to her father and stepmother (not mother). As Bridget, the Borden’s beleaguered Irish maid succinctly puts it, “Whole bloody family was crazy.” As well, Schmidt’s Lizzie Borden is a monstrously spoiled and emotionally stunted woman certainly capable of committing such a crime.

But did anyone back then take a look at Uncle John? He was the brother of the deceased first Mrs. Borden (mother of Lizzie and Emma and baby Alice, “who went to sleep with God”), who came to visit, coincidentally, one day before the murders. Schmidt suggests that Uncle John had a grudge against Mr. Borden for financial reasons, and perhaps a slightly overdeveloped fondness for his niece, Lizzie. It makes one at least wonder.

Schmidt seamlessly weaves fact and fiction, breathing life into existing characters such as Emma, Lizzie’s older sister, whom Lizzie views as having been born to “live with disappointment.” It seems clear that Emma can’t have wielded the axe, given that she was out of town. But was she entirely innocent? She surely bears some responsibility for infantilizing Lizzie, at least according to Schmidt.

Schmidt also introduces new characters. There’s Benjamin, a killer for hire, as well as a handy plot device to serve as an objective narrator to witness and comment on the people and goings-on of August 3 and 4, 1892. But Benjamin also has an agenda that casts, at least initially, plenty of doubt on who cast the killing blows.

Schmidt takes good advantage of the senses, emphasizing smell and taste, thus enriching the horror of those two days: the unwashed bodies, the blood, violets, vomit, rotting pears, and the ever-present mutton stew—all simmering in the oppressive August heat.

Her prose is clever and taut and generously seasoned with nouns verbing their way into literary history: characters “big-bosom” their chests and “daughter” one another along streets. Water “whales” from fountains.

Schmidt tells what might seem a familiar tale (although how many people know the full details?) in shifting points of view, and shifting time frames, mostly the day of the murders and the day before, with occasional forays into the past and future.

This keeps the reader slightly off-balance, as Schmidt builds a case against first one character, and then another. It offers her the opportunity to highlight details, which might or might not be red herrings, making reading See What I Have Done a bit like watching a replay of a controversial sports call from various camera angles in rapid succession. Is one getting a clearer view or not? Should one view be relied upon more than another?

Many readers, upon finishing See What I Have Done, will want to engage in spirited disagreements about who was responsible for the murders. But not one will ever be tempted to order mutton stew.