Sen­sory take on a sen­sa­tional mur­der case

Sarah Sch­midt’s nar­ra­tive of the Bor­dens’ deaths is a bril­liant por­trait of the dispir­it­ing house­hold rather than a who­dun­nit, writes Lucy Sc­holes

The National - News - The Review - - Fiction -

On the morn­ing of Au­gust 4, 1892, hus­band and wife An­drew and Abby Bor­den were bru­tally hacked to death in their home in the small town of Fall River, Mas­sachusetts. Their 32-yearold daugh­ter Lizzie was the prime sus­pect.

A cause célèbre of that pe­riod in Amer­ica – spoiler alert: Lizzie, the O J Simp­son of her day, was tried and ac­quit­ted – yet more than a cen­tury on, we’re still ob­sessed with the tale. From An­gela Carter’s short story The Fall River Axe Mur­ders, through to Ed McBain’s novel Lizzie, the re­cent tele­vi­sion se­ries The Lizzie Bor­den Chron­i­cles the Bor­dens’ young Ir­ish maid; and Ben­jamin, a vi­o­lent drifter with re­venge on the brain, who be­comes en­tan­gled with Lizzie and Emma’s ma­ter­nal un­cle. Largely ig­nor­ing Lizzie’s now leg­endary trial, Sch­midt breathes life – fetid and sti­fling as it is – into the in­creas­ingly toxic at­mos­phere of 92 Sec­ond Street.

Abby was ac­tu­ally An­drew’s sec­ond wife, and Lizzie and Emma’s step­mother, but the only mother Lizzie re­ally knew (her and Emma’s hav­ing died when Lizzie was only two). Strange then that 20-odd years later Lizzie sud­denly stops re­fer­ring to her as such, us­ing the more for­mal “Mrs Bor­den” in­stead. Thus, by the time we meet them here, re­la­tions be­tween step-mother and step-daugh­ter are strained and un­com­fort­able.

Sch­midt’s Lizzie is a mas­ter­ful cre­ation: as un­re­li­able a nar­ra­tor as they come, she’s sly and con­niv­ing one minute, a petu­lant child throw­ing a tantrum the next. Sch­midt takes her ti­tle from the nurs­ery rhyme – “Lizzie Bor­den took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her fa­ther forty-one” – it might not seem like the most suit­able sub­ject mat­ter for a child’s skip­ping song, but Sch­midt’s Lizzie has long been in­fan­tilised by her near­est and dear­est, in­dulged and spoilt by her fa­ther, and pro­tected by her older sis­ter (the prom­ise Emma made to their dy­ing mother to look af­ter her younger sib­ling ex­ert­ing a hellish hold over her).

Lizzie is the star of the show, but also of note is the strik­ingly am­biva­lent re­la­tion­ship be­tween the sis­ters, their rap­port as in­con­sis­tent as Lizzie’s own mood swings, fluc­tu­at­ing be­tween in­ti­macy and claus­tro­pho­bia with alarm­ing speed. “Ev­ery day I was sur­rounded by my sis­ter,” Emma laments, “clumps of auburn hair found on the car­pet and in the sink; fin­ger­prints on mir­rors and doors; the smell of musk hid­ing in drapes. I would wake with my sis­ter in my mouth, hair strands, a taste of sour milk, like she was pos­sess­ing me.”

The Bor­den house­hold is one of suf­fo­cat­ing phys­i­cal­ity: dirty un­der­gar­ments cling to clammy skin; dresses “gripped tight”; blad­ders swell to “burst­ing”; all while the sticky sum­mer heat beats down. “I felt like I was drown­ing in salt and sweat,” says Emma. Sch­midt evokes an of­ten stom­ach-churn­ing sen­sory over­load. Food and vis­cera be­come in­ter­change­able, a prob­ing tongue the only way to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween blood and jam; bod­ies ex­pel their con­tents – teeth, vomit, it’s all the same. The sweet ripe stench of de­cay hangs heav­ily in the air; and then there are those dread­ful sounds that break the morn­ing si­lence: “Chock, chock. A sound of grunt­ing, like an an­i­mal eat­ing. Chock.”

“None of this would have hap­pened if she hadn’t left me in the house,” Lizzie be­rates her sis­ter at one point. But Emma’s not the only one who’s trapped, des­per­ate to break free from the se­crets, re­sent­ment, ri­valry and seething anger with which the house­hold heaves. “You should not be al­lowed to just leave!” screams an irate Abby, worn out by her step-daugh­ter’s un­pre­dictable be­hav­iour, when poor put-upon Brid­get gives her no­tice.

True crime this is not – the weak­est part of the book is Ben­jamin’s ar­bi­trary sum­ma­tion of Lizzie’s trial; nec­es­sary per­haps, but it sits at odds with the in­te­ri­or­ity that pre­cedes it – so if you want the­o­ries and an­a­lyt­ics, look else­where. But what See What I Have Done does, it does rather bril­liantly.

Lucy Sc­holes is a free­lance re­viewer based in Lon­don. Ar­nal­dur In­dri­da­son Harvill Secker, May 18

Re­tired de­tec­tive Kon­rad is drawn back to the case of a woman found stran­gled dur­ing wartime Reyk­javik in the “shadow dis­trict”, when a 90-year-old-man is found mur­dered in his bed. Kon­rad races to con­nect the cases in this Ice­landic thriller by the award-win­ning crime writer.

The Shadow Dis­trict

See What I Have Done Sarah Sch­midt Tin­der Press Dh62

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