Who de­liv­ered all those deadly whacks?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sarah Sch­midt James Bradley’s

On the morn­ing of Au­gust 4, 1892, Brid­get Sul­li­van, maid to the wealthy Bor­den fam­ily of Fall River, Mas­sachusetts, was sum­moned by Lizzie, at 22 the younger of the two Bor­den daugh­ters. “Come quick! Fa­ther’s dead,” she cried. “Some­body came in and killed him.”

On reach­ing the sit­ting room she dis­cov­ered Lizzie’s fa­ther, An­drew Bor­den, slumped on a sofa, his head shat­tered by close to a dozen blows to his face with a hatchet, one of which had split his eye­ball. He was still bleed­ing.

The po­lice were sum­moned, but not long after they ar­rived Brid­get and a neigh­bour went up­stairs and found the body of Lizzie’s step­mother, Abby, on the floor of the guest room. She had been hacked to death in the same fash­ion as her hus­band.

In the days fol­low­ing, sus­pi­cion fell on Lizzie, who gave in­con­sis­tent and con­tra­dic­tory ac­counts of her move­ments on the morn­ing of the killings. On Au­gust 11 she was ar­rested.

Whether due to the grue­some­ness of the killings, the sta­tus of the fam­ily, the fact Lizzie was a woman or some com­bi­na­tion of all three, the case be­came a sen­sa­tion. It went even wilder when, in 1893, Lizzie was ac­quit­ted of the killings and set free. She died in 1927.

In the cen­tury and a bit since, the case has re­mained a source of con­stant fas­ci­na­tion and spec­u­la­tion, spawn­ing a small li­brary of non­fic­tion books and nov­els. Some point to other sus­pects, per­haps most no­tably Brid­get and Lizzie’s un­cle John Morse, who was stay­ing in Fall River at the time of the killings. Oth­ers seek to un­der­stand the cu­ri­ously over­heated at­mos­phere of the Bor­den house­hold.

Sarah Sch­midt’s de­but novel See What I Have Done in­serts it­self into this crowded field with con­sid­er­able in­tel­li­gence and poise.

Told from the per­spec­tives of Lizzie, her older sis­ter Emma, Brid­get and the shad­owy Ben­jamin, a vi­o­lent drifter whose life in­ter­sects with the Bor­dens, it is less in­ter­ested in es­tab­lish­ing who­dunit or anatomis­ing the mo­ti­va­tions of the per­pe­tra­tor than in cap­tur­ing the tex­tures of the mur­der­ous mind.

It’s a project un­der­taken be­fore — Patrick McCabe’s bril­liant The Butcher Boy or MJ Hy­land’s This Is How (the ti­tle of which See What I Have Done seems to echo, con­sciously or oth­er­wise) are good ex­am­ples — yet there is noth­ing sec­ond-hand about Sch­midt’s novel. For while her con­trol of nar­ra­tive ten­sion oc­ca­sion­ally wa­vers, es­pe­cially in the fi­nal third, for the most part this novel has the sort of as­sur­ance rarely found in de­but fic­tion.

It’s qual­ity un­der­pinned by the fact Sch­midt writes thrillingly well, and de­spite the oc­ca­sional slightly dis­con­cert­ing anachro­nism (did 19th-cen­tury peo­ple re­ally say “lighten up”?) has an eye for striking im­ages: An­drew Bor­den’s body laid out like “a bone xy­lo­phone”; a man vom­its “gravy-thick” on to Ben­jamin’s boots. Yet the real strength of her prose lies in how it cap­tures the shim­mer­ing mo­tion of Lizzie’s mind, and the minds of oth­ers. We shift be­tween her ag­i­tated, slightly de­ranged child­ish­ness, Emma and Brid­get’s thwarted de­sire for free­dom from their cir­cum­stances and the cruel vi­o­lence of Ben­jamin’s psy­che.

Of the four, the real triumphs are Ben­jamin and Lizzie. De­spite his ini­tially tan­gen­tial re­la­tion­ship to the cen­tral nar­ra­tive (a prob­lem the novel never fully re­solves) Sch­midt in­hab­its the mind of the feral Ben­jamin en­tirely con­vinc­ingly, cap­tur­ing not just his un­set­tling lack of af­fect and im­pul­sive vi­o­lence but also his anger and sense of griev­ance. Sim­i­larly, her por­trait of Lizzie is si­mul­ta­ne­ously deeply per­sua­sive and gen­uinely dis­turb­ing. Needy, preen­ing, in­fan­tilised by her con­trol­ling fa­ther and child­like in her venge­ful­ness and sense of en­ti­tle­ment, Sch­midt’s Lizzie is re­pul­sive and pa­thetic yet al­ways en­tirely be­liev­able.

The novel’s real achieve­ment is how it in­fects the pro­ceed­ings with con­stant un­ease, sug­gest­ing there are things Lizzie and Emma are not telling us. The tex­tures of the house and the daugh­ters’ lives carry an un­set­tlingly sex­u­alised charge, as does Lizzie’s re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther and, to a lesser ex­tent, her step­mother. This sense of the un­spo­ken and un­know­ing is part of what el­e­vates Sch­midt’s treat­ment of the ma­te­rial above so many sim­i­lar nov­els. For threaded through an ac­count of the fa­mil­iar story is some­thing only rarely en­coun­tered: a por­trait of a murderer that does not pre­tend the act of mur­der is ex­pli­ca­ble but in­stead cap­tures the lay­ers of de­nial and self­de­cep­tion that sur­round it with chill­ing and fright­en­ing pre­ci­sion. will be a guest at the Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, May 22 to 28. new novel is The Si­lent In­va­sion.

A poster of the 1893 trial of al­leged axe murderer Lizzie Bor­den

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.