Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on See What I Have Done.
“Murder most foul!” And yet, given the near-poetic prose that describes the shocking murder of Andrew and Abby Borden by daughter Lizzie, one would be forgiven for resisting the terrible fate the girl might meet at trial. It’s a familiar 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 was a sensational double murder, Lizzie on trial for murder in 1892, everyone spellbound by the crime. But years have passed, Lizzie Borden perhaps forgotten except for Sarah Schmidt’s retelling of the unhappy family and a daughter filled with rage. Schmidt’s style of writing is so unexpected, often a contrast to the bloody violence awaiting discovery.
Lizzie, the youngest daughter, and
sister Emma are spinsters living at home with their father, Andrew, and his second wife, Abby, a woman who
could never take the place of their dead mother. Both Andrew and Abby are very rigid in their roles, Lizzie’s relationship with her father fraught with emotional landmines. Emma is twelve when her mother dies, Lizzie only two. Nearly five when her father marries Abby, Lizzie tries to love her new “mother” but remains conflicted, sometimes hostile. The youngest girl, even in a woman’s body, seems caught between childhood and independence, given to raging tantrums. Andrew often gives in, occasions of kindness and generosity belied by frequent outbursts of cruelty and corporal punishment. All doors must be locked at all times, sealed from intruders, family dysfunctions seething behind secured doors, the cacophony of rage and howling laughter.
The neighbors are used to Lizzie’s moods, her exuberance and anger, Emma the only one who can temper her sister’s excesses. Emma is visiting a friend and Lizzie is about to face a crisis. There is no one to intervene, no one to calm and soothe the emotionally volatile Lizzie. The sisters’ relationship is a maze of love and hate, affection demanded more than given, subtle blackmail exerted over Emma by her sly, troubled sister. Emma says “I love you” to Lizzie but often means “I hate you.” Such is the family Borden. The tension is broken only by
the Irish maid Bridget, who longs to return to her family. She does her chores, avoiding the family
and watching the chaos unfold, hating the helplessness she feels. One other character enters the drama: Uncle John, brother of Andrew’s dead wife. With the demeanor of a carnival huckster, John is an infrequent visitor but enjoys spending time with Lizzie. John is in town the day of the murders but out on business when the slaying occurs. The household is as tightly bound as a Victorian corset, the summer heat searing the house as Lizzie discovers that something has happened to her papa, and the infamous drama begins.
While the story is narrated by select characters, Lizzie and Emma provide the emotional complexity of the murder scene and the years growing up without their mother, Abby a poor substitute as time goes by and Lizzie’s personality expands exponentially to her chronic discontent. Emma is a sympathetic character trapped in a life she cannot endure, Lizzie claiming everything for herself. The relationship between the two is fascinating if uneven, Lizzie without scruples. The author uses impressions, images, even scents to furnish the rooms of a house on the brink of tragedy. Chopped to bits, the bloody murders of Andrew and Abby provide some relief post-slaying. The poetic words soften the brutality of murders grown slightly stale and cloying, Lizzie a spoiled bouquet left too long in the sun. It is quite an experience.