He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed father.’ I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth. The clock on the mantle ticked ticked. I looked at father, the way hands clutched to thighs, the way the little gold ring on his pinky finger sat like a sun. I gave him that ring for his birthday when I no longer wanted it. ‘Daddy,’ I had said. ‘I’m giving this to you because I love you.’ He had smiled and kissed my forehead.
Sarah Schmidt takes the unsolved murder of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother as her starting point. Around it, she weaves a tense, claustrophobic exploration of the relationships and events which may have played out in the house on the day of the murders and the day proceeding it.
The narrative moves between four characters: Lizzie; Emma, Lizzie’s older sister; Bridget, the housekeeper, and Benjamin, a stranger who meets Lizzie and Emma’s Uncle John in a bar.
Schmidt’s Lizzie is evasive, veering from cruel and manipulative to child-like. She’s the centre of her world and expects everyone else to treat her as the centre of theirs. While Lizzie’s role in the narrative is largely focused on events around the murders, Emma is allowed a slightly broader view. The older sister allows us a deeper insight into Lizzie’s character, recounting incidents and behaviour which stretch further back in time. Emma is envious of the way Lizzie’s been indulged but also frustrated at her own ability to escape the family set up. Even when she attempts to move away, living with a friend and attending a private art class, Lizzie continues to invade her life, sending daily letters recounting scenes from the Borden household.
Bridget, the housekeeper, begins her narrative by telling the reader that she’s twice tried to quit the Borden’s:
The second time I tried to leave, after Emma and Lizzie temporarily split the house in two by locking all the adjoining doors, Mrs. Borden raised my wages to three dollars a week and gave me Sundays off. ‘Don’t let them put you off,’ she’d said quietly. ‘It happens from time to time. We’ll get over it.’
I didn’t want to face another day with Lizzie, not another day with any of them, not another day of God knows what.
Bridget gives us an insider-outsider perspective, a different take on the cause of internal tensions.
Benjamin, the stranger, is enlisted by John, the brother of Lizzie and Emma’s dead mother to send a message to their father.
‘I want him to know that I’ve been paying close attention to how he’s been treating his daughters lately.’ He paused again, thought some. ‘And I want him to reconsider where he’s spending his money.’
Benjamin’s a good choice for the task as he has his own parent/child issues:
I used to be butter – the way I’d disappear at the sign of heat. There had been all those school boy days of knuckle busting skin, taunts about my chicken coop smell. My papa was a tall, hulk fist. He had ways of shaping children into adults.
His insertion into the narrative brings a question over Lizzie’s involvement in the murders: is it possible someone else was involved, someone the police were unaware of?
What really makes See What I Have Done a compelling, memorable novel though is the atmosphere Schmidt creates. The tension is palpable from the first page and at no point in the following 315 does it let up. The clock tick ticks on the mantle, the heat stifles inside and outside the house, the blood permeates.
There’s a lot of buzz around See What I Have Done and rightly so; this is a tightly crafted work and Sarah Schmidt is one to watch. A must read.
Thanks to Tinder Press for the review copy.