‘Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She give her father forty-one.’
I have just turned the final pages of Sarah Schmidt’s chilling novel See What I Have Done. The more that I look into the story behind this novel, the more that it is freaking me out. Based on true events, this book deals with the double murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their family home in 1892.
The author treats us to multiple narratives to give us a fictional account of the story from different angles. For me, this is the novel’s chief strength as Schmidt creates memorable, fully grown characters that heave with motives and emotion. The push and pull of each character makes for some very interesting reading.
The star of this novel is the unhinged daughter of the murder victims, Lizzie Borden. From early on it is clear that she is an immature, volatile and vindictive character. The whole family structure seems to be built around dealing with her unpredictable tempers.
Her older sister, Emma, carries the burden of being Lizzie’s only sibling and true companion. Lizzie is terribly dependent on Emma. This is due to the unfortunate deaths of their birth mother and sister back when they were children. This ties Emma permanently to the role of Lizzie’s unofficial caregiver and as a result she sees her whole life pass her by.
Then there is Bridget the Irish maid. She probably suffers the most of all amongst the dysfunctional Borden family. Far from home and clinging to hopes of a return, she endures the regular fighting and constant demands that come with living with the Bordens.
The beauty of the book is that you have a good idea of ‘whodunnit’ but through multiple narratives it becomes less clear the more you read. The main characters seem to be either outwardly despicable and scheming or furiously frustrated at their lot in life. Some characters are both.
Murder is never a pretty business and never is this more true than when it comes to axe murders. Schmidt almost causes blood to splatter out from the pages with her vivid recollections of the crime scenes and the crime itself.
Interesting characters, a violent double murder and an overall sense of nausea make See What I Have Done a very memorable and unsettling read. Add it to your winter reading list as the evenings grow darker and family gatherings increase!
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Yes, if you want something different, something rooted in a bit of history, give this one a go. Reading through this book, I thought that it had great potential as a film or stage production.
- Reading this novel put me in mind of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. It made the Man Booker shortlist in 2016 and outsold all its rivals in the run up to the announcement. A very similar read with roots in historical events and characters.
- Sarah Schmidt spent a couple of nights in the Borden family home as part of her research for this novel. Would you be willing to go that far in the name of art???
- Read ‘my-sleepless-night-alone-at-the-allegedly-haunted-lizzi-borden-house’
- A quick google will throw up several gruesome photographs linked to the actual events behind this book. I wouldn’t do so if I were you!