See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, Hachette. “I wiped my hand across my mouth, tasted blood... I watched blood river down his neck... The clock on the mantel ticked, ticked. I walked out of the room, closed the door behind me and made my way to the back stairs... ‘Someone’s killed Father.’”
This dark, creepy, tactile novel is a retelling of the real life story of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted for the brutal axe murders of her father and stepmother in the town of Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892.
Lizzie’s case captivated the US at the time and still does. She was the O.J. Simpson of her era, with a huge body of opinion totally convinced that she was guilty, her main defence being that she was a mere woman!
Sarah Schmidt’s novel is not a forensic analysis of the facts, but a bloodbath of the senses with a nightmarish quality that messes with your head and frequently sends chills shooting down your spine. Behind the grizzly detail, there is a rather thrilling sense of whodunit and this tension, coupled with some brilliantly drawn characterisation and heavily descriptive prose, sucks you in to what is a very well-known story.
Sarah knew little of the historic case until she “stumbled across an old, ratty pamphlet” in a secondhand bookstore in Melbourne. “For a whole week, I dreamt about Lizzie sitting on the end of my bed showing and telling me things. It was unbelievably creepy,” she says.
“In the end, I thought the only way to make these horrible dreams end was to write them down. And that was how the book started. The dreams never ended.”
After thumbing through endless research, the author realised she needed to really immerse herself in the Borden story and slept at the actual house – now a bed and breakfast (only in America!). “It was one of the best, strangest things I’ve ever done,” she says.
Her novel seeps out through multiple narrators, who give different experiences of life in 92 Second Street, to build up a picture of an environment bristling with emotion, betrayal, greed and dark passion.
There’s Lizzie’s sister, Emma, who was away when the murders were committed, the family’s disgruntled Irish maid Bridget and the fictional character of Benjamin, a drifter and outside observer. The love-hate relationship between the sisters is fascinatingly drawn and the claustrophobia of the Borden home palpable.
The result is not a comprehensive analysis of the case, but it is compelling and incredibly haunting.