Book Buzz: See What I Have Done

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

As the days get shorter and chillier and the specter of Halloween looms, creepy thrillers have seasonal reading appeal. In See What I Have Done, Australian novelist Sarah Schmidt presents a deeply disturbing retelling of a classic true crime story that fits the bill.

Remember the gruesome rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks…”? Schmidt gets into the head of Lizzie herself, as well as her sister Emma, Bridget the maid, and a stranger named Benjamin, to explore what happened that fateful day in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.

Andrew Borden was a wealthy businessman who, along with his second wife Abby and his adult daughters Lizzie and Emma, lived in a large two-story home at 92 Second St. Emma was staying with a friend out of town on the day Lizzie purportedly found her father’s body, slumped and bleeding on the living room couch. “Someone’s killed Father,” she is said to have yelled.

Schmidt begins her tale from Lizzie’s perspective in the minutes after the murder. Lizzie is dazed, her heart racing, feverish, nonsensical. She screams for the maid, Bridget, to send for Dr. Bowen. A neighbor, Mrs. Churchill, hears the commotion and enters the house, only to discover the grisly scene. Immediately it’s clear that Lizzie may know more than she’s letting on—but what?

While the actual murders happen off-page, sensitive readers will pick up the terrible feeling of foreboding that permeates the book. Flashbacks explore Lizzie and Emma’s childhood, the death of their mother, and their strained relationship with Abby, their stepmother. Their father is strict and harsh; tension abounds. Lizzie is manipulative and controlling, and Emma struggles to escape the bonds of both father and sister. There’s significant family dysfunction and possible mental illness.

Further complicating the scene is the unexpected arrival of their birth mother’s darkly sinister brother the night before the murders took place. Why is John there and what role did he play?

In Schmidt’s world, none of the Bordens are sympathetic. Only Bridget, haplessly trapped to a life of drudgery, comes across as sane and pitiful. The house itself, lit by kerosene and scented by days-old mutton soup, is oppressive and menacing. Lizzie’s beloved pigeons flap and flutter and claw. The book’s cover, of a painted pigeon, watercolors dripping down the page, is particularly arresting. This story will have you shivering under the covers as you stay up ‘til the wee hours reading to the bitter end.

Christine Perkins is the executive director of the Whatcom County Library System.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, October 24, 2018.)