Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done was eagerly thrust into my hands pretty much fresh off the printer with the words ‘this book is wonderfully dark, gritty and gothic, very you, you’ll love it’. Which instantly made me nervous of it. I am one of those people who gets reader stage fright. You hear a book is going to be ‘very you’ and you feel the pressure is already too much or start to contemplate what that person recommending you the book thinks of you before you have even opened the cover. In this case I was oddly flattered, strangely even more so when it turned out that Schmidt’s debut was a fictionalised account of the true crime case of Lizzie Borden, who many believed a murderess. I like my fiction dark, gritty and gothic, so believe me when I say that if that too is your bookish bag then this is just the sticky icky twisty treat for you too.
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 ring to you because I love you.’ He has smiled and kissed my forehead.
A long time ago now.
From the very beginning of See What I Have Done we are thrown straight into the macabre action and cloying, dirty atmosphere of the Borden household as Lizzie finds her father dead on the sofa with his head caved. It starts as it means to go on for this is a house that from the very start feels sick. It is grubby, meat being recooked over and over leaving a stench that pretty much sticks to the walls – and all this before it turns out there is not one dead body in the house but two as Lizzie’s step-mother is soon discovered to have met the same end. But who would take an axe to the heads of these two people, especially with such savagery? That of course is what we the reader, seemingly along with everyone in the Borden household and the surrounding streets of Fall River wonders, though of course deep down they all know it must be one of them.
And this, from the very off, is one of the things that makes See What I Have Done so utterly delicious to read, if a rather gory morsel. Everyone is under suspicion; from the police, from each other and from us as readers. Schmidt kindly, with a cunning and beguiling smile as her prose grips us and pulls us in ever more, invites us to play detective alongside the, erm, detectives. Yet she doesn’t make it easy, where would the fun in that be. Instead she takes us into the minds of four people who as it happens could be the main suspects and through them introduces us to some right shady characters on the side lines who could also be worth further investigation.
Bridget looked me over, her caterpillar eyebrows cracked like thunder, and the second officer took notes, took notes. My feet traced circles across the carpet, I opened my eyes wide, felt the house move left then right as the heat ground into walls. Everyone pulled at their necks to unloose their tightly wound clothing. I sat still holding my hands together.
First of all there is Lizzie, who I actually want to come back to as I think she is probably the finest creation (though there is a plethora) of the whole novel alongside the atmosphere. Lizzie however is the one who discovers the body, she is the one who has been home all day, though the house is like a disorientating maze so anyone could have got in, and she is also, as we get to see her through others eyes and some hints of her own, the one who seems to have the biggest axe to grind – I am sorry I couldn’t help it.
We then turn to Bridget who is the maid of the house, she cooks and cleans (well both of those are debatable when you take into account the slop in a pan on the cooker and the absolute state of the house) does she know secrets that she shouldn’t, does she have a grudge or a secret of her own to keep? We also have Emma, Lizzie’s sister who mysteriously goes out that day but no one really knows where to, there are vague places alluded to and most people seem to believe her but could she have a grudge against her father and his wife, or worse her own sister. Then there is Benjamin a man who has suddenly appeared in the town, looks like a whole heap of trouble and who has met Lizzie’s (incredibly sleazy and delightfully creepy, remember what I said about shady side characters) Uncle John and may have made a pact with him and the devil.
Exciting isn’t it, all these possibilities. I have to say I really enjoyed, if that is the right word, getting into these four people’s heads, watching them watching each other and taking in all their interior viewpoints whilst having a bit of a root around in their potential motives and trying to work out just who on earth did it. I do have my theories but I will say no more for I don’t want to give anything away and take any of the fun of finding out yourself, or at least trying to.
Of course, being based on true events, even if still brimming with grey areas and shrouded in what ifs and maybes which has kept so many people fascinated, you know what actually happened or can look it up. What Schmidt does with Lizzie’s character, which also makes you forget it is real, will have your absolutely hooked even when you sometimes want to look away or pop the book down for a five-minute breather.
Under Schmidt’s prose, Lizzie is probably one of the most interesting women in fiction you will meet this year and also one of the most grimly fascinating character studies I have come across in a long time. Broken and vulnerable yet cunning and sneaky. Is she a misunderstood victim of her household or a product of it? Is she a potential killer or is she mentally unwell? Whatever the case she is completely enthralling to read, all the more so because her narration is slightly off; sometimes repetitive and childlike, sometimes wise beyond her years and almost gleefully sinister and knowing. You never know where you are with her and you feel she knows this all too well – I could be talking about Lizzie Borden or Sarah Schmidt herself when I say that, ha.
Underneath the sofa were tiny pieces of paper that had come away from police officers’ notebooks, trailing from sofa to kitchen like Hansel’s and Gretel’s hoping to find their way back home. I rubbed my forehead again. There would be many things Emma would have to fix to make everything right. I could see father’s blood on the sofa. I considered things.
Words slipped out of me then. ‘I was here talking to Mrs Borden this morning.’
Emma seized. ‘When was this?’ Her voice scratched at my ear.
‘After she told Bridget to keep cleaning the windows. She said there was a strange smell.’
Emma’s nose twitched. ‘What kind of smell?’
The sweet syrup tripped through my limbs. ‘I don’t know. It was probably her.’ I giggled.
One of the benefits of leaving it sometime between reading a book and writing a review of it is that you can get a distance from it – an excuse which I will be using for why some reviews have taken so long to write. I digress. After all, sometimes books fade a little from that first reading rush, or of course they can grow on you as the themes and thoughts they bring up bloom the larger the more time that you have away from them. Then there are books like See What I Have Done, which as your read them worm their way deeper into your psyche and leave something lingering there long after, these are the books you don’t forget the ones whose characters and places just refuse to budge. I urge you to read Lizzie’s tale and let yourself become entwine in the Borden house before it starts to stick in your head, rather like an axe could.
In rather exciting news, as sometimes books can bring people into your life who become lifelong friends or soul siblings, myself and Sarah will be starting a ‘sinister’ book group later this year where we read an unsettling read a month and you can all join in, titles and dates to be released soon. In the interim, you can get Sarah’s book here if you haven’t already which you really should have.