September 08, 2017

See What I Have Done - Sarah Schmidt

Grove Atlantic, August 1, 2017.


Four Stars


The ax murder of Lizzie Borden’s parents is one of the most fascinating and famous historical crimes of all time. Here it is retold in the intimate tone of a domestic thriller – it is the story of a woman raised in a violent, abusive home who yearns for freedom, and the dysfunctional family that surrounds her.


On August 4th, 1892, the Borden house is shaken by Lizzie’s screams – she has just discovered the bloody body of her deceased father Andrew. As the police arrive and Lizzie is comforted by her sister Emma and their maid Bridget, they soon discover another body upstairs. It belongs to Lizzie’s stepmother Abby, and everyone is shocked that this respected married couple with no known enemies should be brutally murdered. From the outside, the Borden family had seemed perfect, but the reality is very different – an angry father, a cruel stepmother, and the spinster sisters Emma and Lizzie who are desperate to leave home and gain independence, at any cost.


Lizzie’s memories of the morning in question are scattered and unclear, and Emma tries to help her get her story straight. We revisit the crime scene through Lizzie’s troubled eyes, and her balancing act on the edge of madness adds to the unsettling tone of the novel. The events leading up to the double murder are slowly revealed by multiple narrators, including Emma, Bridget, and a mysterious stranger named Benjamin who has unusual insights into the Borden family.


This novel is well-structured and exciting as it exposes the secrets behind the unlikeable Borden family, and it somehow lends sympathy to Lizzie even though she isn’t particularly likeable either. All of the characters are strongly developed, not just Lizzie, which adds to the realism of the story. There is also a solid sense of setting, with sensual descriptions of the sights, smells and (especially) foods that make up the background.


Although Lizzie was tried for the murder of her parents, she was eventually acquitted due to lack of evidence – however, she was convicted by public opinion. See What I Have Done is a true crime story, fictionalized through dreamlike emotion and the saturation of the senses. The missing hours before the discovery of the dead bodies are handled especially well, and the emotions of the survivors are convincing, lending themselves to the haunting atmosphere of this compelling novel.


I received this book from Grove Atlantic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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