See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
The case of Lizzie Borden is one that has sustained public interest for over one hundred years. She has gone down in history as the daughter who, as the rhyme goes, ‘took an axe, and gave her father forty whacks’. However, the grisly murder of her elderly father and stepmother was never officially attributed to anybody, as prosecutors couldn’t believe a woman would be physically capable of committing such a violent crime. This meticulously researched novel breathes new life into a complex case that still attracts speculation.
This is a novel that sits somewhere between historical and literary fiction. I was impressed by the way it explored its historical context beyond the case itself – the chapters by Bridget, the Borden’s Irish maid, give an outline of the immigrant experience in America’s Gilded Age. These sections are interesting for a second reason: it is Bridget’s outsider’s view into the Borden family dynamic that anchors this string of events in a sense of reality. Bringing Bridget’s presence to the forefront of the narrative surrounding the deaths of Abby and Andrew Borden makes this retelling feel new.
Somehow, Sarah Schmidt manages to do all this without sacrificing the quality of her writing. I found the grisliest scenes had the most stunning prose, which makes it very hard to stop reading (even when you start to feel ill). Every single one of the characters is disturbing, especially Lizzie. Her outbursts, strange habits and contradictions are fascinating to explore, as they are what cast suspicion on her in the first place. In this novel, Lizzie Borden is much more than the pop-culture caricature of a murderess you might be familiar with.
Even though this is an old story, Schmidt’s beautifully abject and visceral prose paints a new and somehow more disturbing picture of Lizzie Borden and her family.