See What I Have Done
Sarah Schmidt
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Buy *See What I Have Done* by Sarah Schmidtonline

See What I Have Done
Sarah Schmidt
Atlantic Monthly Press
324 pages
August 2017
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on See What I Have Done.

I have to confess I knew little about Lizzie Borden, the woman who gained infamy after being tried for the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother, Stephen and Abby, in Fall River, Massachusetts. The heart of Schmidt’s intensely claustrophobic novel is the theme of family dysfunction as well as the strange bond between Lizzie and her sister, Emma, who was visiting a friend in Fairhaven at the time of the murders. In 1892 in Fall River, hooped skirts flounce and hooves crash against the cobblestones. A cotton-mill fog constantly this industrial town where the Borden family are influential and well-respected.

Schmidt doesn’t posit the inevitability of Lizzie’s guilt even when Lizzie’s voice is repeatedly beyond frustrating and often duplicitous. She ultimately brings heartbreak to everyone involved, especially Emma, who resents Lizzie for her provocative behavior. The family’s Irish maid, Bridget, has her own reasons for begrudging the Bordens. Arriving in Fall River from Pennsylvania, Bridget craves her home country and thinks of the early days when she came to Second Street, when she didn’t quite believe she was worth the money. Stephen admits that wanted “a back bone” for a wife while Abby wanted someone to give an order to and keep her company.

In the first initial hours, identifying the killer becomes top priority, though there’s something fatalistic about the police’s discovery of Stephen and Abby’s bloody bodies. Lizzie’s best friend, Alice Russell, arrives and bustles about in shock. Uncle John Morse is the first witness to be interviewed, having spent the night in the guest room. Lizzie sheds little light on what happened other than telling the police that she found her father “all cut up.” As they set about taking photos of the dark-suited Stephen, Dr. Bowen gives Lizzie a shot of warm medicine to comfort her. With Bridget and the Bordens' neighbor Mrs. Churchill ensconced in the dining room, Lizzie anxiously waits for Emma as the dining room cloys and heaves with the odor of warm bodies and “police mouths.” As the fog settles in, Lizzie’s mind drifts to the upstairs of the house and to her own past. Only two years previously, she was on her grand European tour, celebrating her new freedom from her family: “everything reminded me of how small Fall River was, how big I was finally becoming.”

Obviously Schmidt is writing Lizzie’s story, but I see this as a tale of two sisters doing battle with their interdependence and dysfunctionality. Lizzie, Emma and Bridget narrate, as does enigmatic Benjamin, who accepts the invitation of John Morse, arriving at second street with agenda of his own. Brigid and Benjamin’s observations add a sort of smoke-and-mirrors aspect as Schmidt delves deep into their mindsets, skewering time and place with the metaphorical skeletons of the Borden family’s past. There’s a suffocating sense of menace, a gruesome danger that focuses on Stephen’s physical abuse of Lizzie; Emma’s self-sacrifice in making sure her sister is always so well-behaved; Abby’s rising, volcanic “tyrant talk;” Benjamin finding Abby lying face-first, caught partway between the dressing table and the bed; and Lizzie grappling with nightmares and her bruising dreams; “I needed Emma, needed something like a comfort.”

As Stephen and Abby’s incessant vomiting becomes worse and worse (presided over by Lizzie, who may be trying to poison them), Schmidt’s heroine proves to be a formidable adversary, cleverly calibrating her revenge on her father and her stepmother, seeking comfort from Bridget and waiting for her sister to return home. Did Lizzie really commit the murders? Schmidt certainly makes it so, although she does offer alternative scenarios as she unfolds in intricate detail Lizzie’s violent streak and her warped, complicated view of the world. Schmidt fully understands Lizzie’s complicated relationship with Stephen and Abby. She describes in harsh terms Lizzie’s incessant quarrelling, her boorish and pedantic daydreams with a measure of impartiality--although she mostly leaves us to decide upon the true nature of Lizzie’s guilt.

The book's darker undercurrents are symbolized in the rot and decay, the thick stains of heat, the broken muscle and bone, the splatter of blood on Lizzie’s wrists, “tiny droplets that find their way under her skin,” as well as the small piece of skull, weighting the price of gold, inside of Benjamin’s trouser pocket. While Benjamin looks for clues as to who “sorted Abby out,” he wonders who John might’ve asked to help “solve the family problem.” Lizzie swoons in the feeling of being held too tightly, first by her father and then by Emma. Schmidt excels in divulging the delicate strain between anguished Lizzie and frantic Emma, who ends up mostly helpless and shamed. The sad past gnaws steadily away inside Emma, a past manifested by the death of her beloved mother and her little sister, Alice. Through the course of the story, Emma has gradually seen all if her freedoms slip away in the wake of her sister’s rumored crime and subsequent prosecution.

Beyond the violence and pain and death, Schmidt makes it easy for us to sympathize with Lizzie’s jittery psyche and the love she has for her cherished pigeons. The birds are her only true comfort, until those too are lost by the actions of her father, who attempts to cut away all the elements of his daughter’s life that make any sense. From its moments of vivid description to its gore-stained melancholy, Schmidt paints her novel in beautiful, vehement strokes, shepherding us toward the aching nature of this “devil daughter” and of beleaguered, loyal Emma, who ends up seeing her sister as nothing more than a cruel and twisted monster.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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