Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

UK hardback book cover of See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

I freely admit that I picked up See What I Have Done simply because it’s beautiful. I was browsing in Waterstones and just doesn’t resist the embossed grey cover and the neon orange pages. I even put it down a few times and tried to walk away, but I just couldn’t follow through. Luckily, I ended up enjoying the story almost as much as the aesthetics (even though I spent an unreasonable amount of my reading time stroking the cover).

Plot summary: When her father and
step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892,
Lizzie Borden – thirty two years old and still living at home –
immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found
innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.

Meanwhile,
others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and
their own stories to tell: Lizzie’s unmarried older sister, a put-upon
Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie’s uncle to take care of a
problem.

This unforgettable debut makes you question the truth
behind one of the great unsolved mysteries, as well as exploring power,
violence and the harsh realities of being a woman in late nineteenth
century America.

I knew parts of the Lizzie Borden story – I knew that her parents had been murdered and that it was publically accepted that ‘she done it,’ but somehow it couldn’t be proved in Court and she was subsequently acquitted. Turns out I was wrong about some of the most fundamental parts, however – it occurred in Boston, not London as I had thought, and she was a full-grown adult. Maybe it was just because she features in a skipping rhyme, but I thought I knew she was a child when it happened. This was king of jarring, to be honest, but my lack of knowledge is hardly the author’s fault.

see what i have done book cover orange pages sarah schmidtSee What I Have Done is primarily a story about the people surrounding the death of Mr and Mrs Borden, not the facts of the case. The narrative of the chapters alternate between Lizzie, her sister, their maid and their uncle’s colleague (weirdly) as they discuss the events of the fateful day and shortly afterwards. There wasn’t a great deal of distinction between the four as their voices sound eerily similar, with the exception of the heavy implication that Lizzie has some sort of mental illness. Still, they were all very readable and the function of all four characters was evident.

I’m slightly confused about the inclusion of their Uncle’s friend, Benjamin, however. I’ve done a bit of googling and I can’t work out if he was a real person, or if he was just included to provide an alternative theory as to the murders. I know it’s a very character-driven piece of fiction, but I can’t quite see the benefit of completely fabricating a person who became heavily involved in the plot of the novel. It may be that I’ve just missed him in my ‘research’ (although it’s a bit of a stretch to call it that) but even if so, some parts of the story could never be verified.

With that in mind, I’d imagine it’s only very loosely based on actual events. The author states in her Afterword that ‘the case didn’t interest me in the slightest,’ but she became interested in the people after Lizzie had come to her in a dream. As you may have guessed, it’s a very… floaty Afterward.

I enjoyed reading this book, although even now I’d be hard pressed to tell you even now what the evidence was, who the suspects were and why Lizzie wasn’t convicted. The story ends immediately after the funeral and before the Police investigation really starts, and then there’s a quick epilogue ten years or so later. There’s no discussion of it at all and it’s odd that even the characters barely wonder in their narratives who murdered Mr and Mrs Borden.

see what i have done book cover orange pages sarah schmidtAs I said, the characters were interesting and it’s well-written enough. Lizzie herself was crafted remarkably well, particularly with regard to her twinges of instablity. There’s only a hint of it, but it’s there. It’s just bizarre that a book about Lizzie Borden doesn’t discuss who murdered her parents. There’s a heavy implication throughout that she was responsible, but this is mostly based on her mental state and not factual evidence, and the novel doesn’t actually reach a conclusion. The different factors aren’t tied together very well at all and it’s very vague about what could have happened. It’s even difficult to piece together a chronology as the narratives of the characters doesn’t always match up with regard to timings – they jump around a little and it’s quite jarring.  

See What I Have Done is an interesting idea and it definitely captivated my attention. It also corrected the erroenous information I had about Lizzie Borden’s age and the geographical location. However, I finished the book a little unfulfilled. I just don’t understand the point of writing a book that feels unfinished. Why discuss Lizzie Borden and not theorise who the murderer was!?

You can stay in Lizzie Borden’s house! Is this not the best thing ever!?  

Comments

  1. Ellie Warren says:

    I'm pretty sure I read something where there was a ghost of Lizzie Borden and she was a teenager…so I don't think you're the only one! Didn't she act really naive and young (good defense) and maybe that's why people think it?

    1. admin says:

      I think so, but it's hard to tell from this book on its own because it's so heavily fictionalised. It mostly consists of conversations and private thoughts, so it's unclear what's fact and what isn't.

      I suspect that she had some form of mental disorder. I'm not saying that she killed her parents, but it probably led to people suspecting it of her at least.

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