Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

The Premise: in 1892 in Massachusetts, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered with an axe in their home. First on the scene was Lizzie, Andrew’s daughter and Abby’s stepdaughter; she went on to gain infamy for being tried in court and acquitted of the murders. Nobody else was ever charged. Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel takes on the case, giving a voice to Lizzie, as well as her sister Emma, their housemaid and a mysterious uninvited visitor.

Thoughts: I’d heard of Lizzie Borden before, but I don’t think the case is anywhere near as notorious here in the UK as it is in the US. At some point in the past, I am sure I’ve read a YA novel in which the main character was obsessed with Lizzie Borden; if I could remember what that book was, I might finally be able to sleep again.
Incidentally, sleep was pretty hard to come by during and after reading See What I Have Done too. It’s a really weird and unsettling novel. Helping me to understand the confused feelings of the characters, I did spend some of that time thinking, ‘what is actually happening?’ and ‘hang on, who are you again?” but I am pretty sure this is a deliberate strategy to maximise the reader’s disorientation in line with the characters’. The mystery continues right to the last moment, without ever making me feel frustrated with the lack of concrete answers.
The highest compliment I can pay Schmidt (or, indeed, anyone, ever) is that See What I Have Done reminded me intensely of the work of my beloved Shirley Jackson, particularly We Have Always Lived in the Castle; sisters with a complex relationship; suspicious multiple murders; a peculiar and not entirely wanted guest, and, most crucially, an unreliable and possibly not fully stable young, female narrator. Merricat and Lizzie should team up as a kind of psychotic Thelma and Louise. My first novel is writing itself right now.
A warning: See What I Have Done is gruesome. If it’s not axe-murders and lashings of blood, it’s copious amounts of vomit and brutalised pigeons. I recently read Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection, Homesick for Another World, and there are intriguing parallels between this and Schmidt’s writing, with both writers unflinching in their portrayal of the unsavoury and downright grotesque. Like Moshfegh, Schmidt presents her reader with a cast of characters who it’s near impossible to particularly like, without alienating the reader. There’s only one narrative strand which didn’t fully engage me; the voices of Schmidt’s conflicted and complex women really grabbed me by the throat and didn’t let go until the last page. Even beyond that, I have found myself picking up the book again to re-read the last chapter. Lizzie stays with the reader long after finishing See What I Have Done. This isn’t an entirely pleasant experience; whether she murdered anyone or not, she’s creepier than the average bear.

In Conclusion: I’ve never been into true crime novels, but Sarah Schmidt has made me wonder if I’m missing out; See What I Have Done is such an intriguingly peculiar and absorbing book, wilfully unpretty and dark, that I may need more, particularly from Schmidt. In the meantime, I’ll just crack on with my Merricat/Lizzie road trip novel. While you’re waiting for that, you should read See What I Have Done and be prepared to be dazzled and vaguely horrified at the same time. It’s an interesting combination of feelings.

 

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