See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done: Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction 2018 by [Schmidt, Sarah]Lizzie Borden took an axe
Gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one

If you ever skipped to this gruesome rhyme as a child you may already know about Lizzie Borden, whose father Andrew and stepmother Abby were murdered in their family home in Fall River, Massachusetts in a horrifically savage axe killing. The only people home at the time were Lizzie, a spinster in her early 30s, and Bridget Sullivan, the family's maid, and there was no sign of forced entry. Bridget had been repeatedly sick that day with a stomach upset that also affected Andrew and Abby, and had taken to her bed in her attic bedroom when Lizzie 'discovered' her butchered father and raised the alarm. Lizzie's odd behaviour, her insistence that she had heard nothing while the frenzied attacks took place and her generally confused testimony led to her being charged with the murders, although she was acquitted after a trial by an all-male jury who simply couldn't accept that a woman could have committed such a physically violent act.

Sarah Schmidt's novel See What I Have Done is a fictionalised exploration of the case, told from the points of view of Lizzie herself, her older sister Emma, Bridget the maid, and the additional character of Benjamin, a disturbed young drifter who hides on the premises the day the murders take place. It deals with the build-up to and aftermath of the crime, and with the stifling, claustrophobic resentment that festers and simmers among the family just like the mutton soup which, left in an open pot in the kitchen for several days at the height of summer and repeatedly reheated, the Bordens eat for meal after meal long after Bridget notices it smells bad.

In fact, there are a lot of bad smells in general. Everyone and everything seems to be described as rancid or musty or foul, from food to people to clothes to the house itself. The characters also constantly eat terrible food, whether it's sickly overripe pears, jam by the stolen teaspoon or the revolting soup. Lizzie bites her nails and drops the clippings on to the carpet; people vomit what felt to me like every ten minutes. This visceral unpleasantness (I should also mention at this point that Andrew Borden was too miserly to have the house plumbed, so the family use 'slop pails' in their rooms and empty them outside) certain does convey the overall unhealthiness and innate rottenness of the Borden family and its relationships. Similarly, the blood from the murders is almost impossible to clean up, as if the house and its remaining inhabitants have been forever contaminated by the event.

The problem is that it's just so relentless that it soon becomes repetitive and eventually I found I just wanted to laugh whenever anything stank or dribbled over a chin or couldn't be scrubbed clean. Schmidt does have an impressive gift for description, but there's simply too much of the same thing. Used more sparingly or subtly it could have been a great deal more effective.

Schmidt opts to tell the Bordens' story in a non-linear way, jumping from character to character and to different points in time before, during and after the day of the murders. The difficulty I had with the different characters is that their narrative styles are all rather similar, as were their points of view.  With several characters telling the story, you'd hope for some different perspectives, but I often felt all four of them were seeing the world rather similarly, and there just wasn't enough to make each voice distinctive. It meanders just a little too much with very little character development, and this tried my patience. (Also, I do wish writers wouldn't try to render accents phonetically because the attempt to recreate Bridget's Irish accent on the page grated on me.)

This was a book that I wanted and expected to like, but I just couldn't quite engage with it. It has many good points: the creeping sense of decay and dysfunction works well at the start before it becomes too much, and the peculiarities of Lizzie's personality are cleverly unnerving. But I couldn't help feeling that style has been elevated over substance and despite my fascination with the case on which the story is based, this one failed to grip me. My impression is that this book is intended to be a character-driven exploration of how the family dynamic and the Borden's physical surroundings might have contributed to Andrew and Abby's gruesome ends, and that is something I would usually enjoy, but I was surprised to find that the most interesting things in the book are actually the details of the case that could be discovered from any brief factual account that's available. There isn't quite enough psychological development there to sustain a novel of this length and the style at times feels as heavy-handed as whomever it was that wielded that famous axe.