Review: “See What I Have Done” by Sarah Schmidt

Posted: December 26, 2017 in Review, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Ever since I stayed overnight and experienced paranormal activity at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast back in July, I’ve kind of become a bit obsessed with the case and the hauntings that occurred because of the murders. The latest manifestation of that obsession is reading the latest fictional retelling of the events (of which there are several, believe me), See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, who says she was inspired to write it after recurring dreams of Lizzie’s spirit visiting her. I first came across a review of this in Entertainment Weekly, and as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to read it.

See is a fictionalized account of the story of Lizzie Borden, who in 1892 was accused of murdering her stepmother and father with an ax and was acquitted due to lack of evidence and investigator bungling. The story is told from the perspectives of Lizzie herself, her elder sister Emma, their live-in maid Bridget, and a violent drifter named Benjamin, all of whom tell what they were up to on a hot, fateful day in August 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts.

I have to say, See is not the usual sort of historical fiction I read when I delve into that genre.

Firstly, the four narrators are each given a unique personality and desires, so that it doesn’t entirely sound like just one person narrating four different people. Lizzie is a spoiled youngest child with a hell of a lot of quirks (to say the least); Emma is an older sister who has become constricted by her responsibility as Lizzie’s older sister and as a Borden and wants to run to a new life; Bridget is overworked, and is trying to leave for her homeland of Ireland, despite Mrs. Borden’s attempts to keep her; and Benjamin is a man who sees the whole world as his enemy, and can’t wait to take a swing at the world. Working with one first-person narrator and making them unique is hard enough, so it’s great that for a debut novel, Schmidt distinguishes them so well.

I also liked how flawlessly she manages to weave these four narratives, especially Lizzie, Bridget and Benjamin’s narratives, together on the day preceding and the day of the murders. Telling overlapping storylines, where several characters are in the same place and experiencing things at the same time, has always struck me as a monumental task which requires skills I’m not sure I have yet (if it’s actually easier than I think, let me know in the comments below). Schmidt did it like a pro, to which I applaud her.

But my favorite part is the descriptions Schmidt has her characters use. I’ve never seen descriptions like what she uses. She turns nouns like “termites” or “critters” into verbs (is there a word for that?), and…you know what, let me quote from the first page:

I breathed in kerosene air, licked the thickness from my teeth…My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop, as I looked at Father again…Pear skin crisped in my mouth…

How different was that? I have never heard any of these things described this way in fiction, and it’s kind of refreshing to hear. And Schmidt does this throughout the book, particularly with food. She goes all out to describe the food and the sensations of eating in a variety of ways. You really have to read it to believe it.

Now was there anything I disliked? A few things. I was kind of hoping going in that this would be a thriller of sorts that revealed an interesting take on an old theory or even better, a new scenario for the still-unsolved murders. What I got was more of a dissection of the Borden family, showing through several different eyes how grating these people have become on each other, and how it might have been a factor in the murders. And while the portrait painted is beautiful and quite telling of both the author’s vision of and what the family might’ve really been like, I thought the ending where the killer is revealed rang a bit hollow. Like I said, I wanted a new scenario or an interesting take on one of the standard theories for the case, and the way it was eventually portrayed fell a little flat for me.

And as much as I liked the unique descriptions in the book, some of them are used repetitively throughout the novel. I can’t count how many times things, especially fingers, are described as sticky, or how many times heat “itches” at someone. To quote some of my editors, variety in words and phrases throughout a story is important.

And what was up with the dislike for Lizzie and Emma’s uncle John? I get why Abby and Andrew Borden dislike him, he’s probably a bad reminder of Lizzie and Emma’s deceased mother, but why do Emma and Bridget dislike him so much but Lizzie adores him? There’s a lot there that I would’ve liked explained.

But all in all, See What I Have Done is an excellent debut for a new novelist. Putting a score on this book on a scale of 1 to 5 was difficult, but my head kept coming back to a 3.8. Engaging, atmospheric, and full of wonderful prose. Check it out, and ax yourself if you’re ready to dive into Lizzie’s madness.

And yes, I intentionally made that pun. And I stand by it. Goodnight, everybody!

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