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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

BOTTOM LINE: An interesting glimpse into this infamous, unsolved double murder

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 1 August 2017
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done—which is already gaining outstanding acclaim—Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling. “

My Thoughts: See What I Have Done works best for those readers who come to the story relatively innocent. A lack of knowledge about Lizzie, her family, the murders, and the trial will help readers enjoy the story and its multiple what-ifs. However, any readers looking for answers to this famous double murder or looking for a long trial scene may be best served avoiding the story altogether. Ms. Schmidt does not solve any of the mystery; she does not shed new light on it. Rather, she takes the data as it is known and interprets potential scenarios that may explain the murders, Lizzie’s conflicting witness statements, and a complete lack of answers about what actually occurred that long ago August day.

For those readers who are like me and are only familiar with the children’s rhyme, See What I Have Done fills in those gaps in knowledge. We get a feel for the family dynamic, for Emma’s and Lizzie’s relationship, for life at the house and in town. We understand the injuries to Mr. and Mrs. Borden, where they were found and how. We gain insight into the confusion after the discovery of the bodies and the police investigation. And we get a small taste of the trial as well as Lizzie’s life after it. Granted, most of this is pure speculation on Ms. Schmidt’s part, but she creates the story in such a way that it is easy to believe what she presents.

Ms. Schmidt also introduces a shady new character who plays eyewitness to much of what occurs that fateful day, without being an eyewitness to the murders themselves. This character’s only purpose is to provide a view of the Borden household from a stranger’s perspective; there is no historical context for this character. As such, this additional character causes me more than a little consternation. In a novel where she remains, from what I can tell, fairly close to the actual events, this fictional character seems unnecessary. I can not help but wonder if she could not have done the same thing with existing characters like neighbors or townspeople passing the house. It would change the dynamic of the story to have done so by making the Borden family a bit more sympathetic. As it is, one is left with an impression that pretty much everyone hated everyone else, including extended family, to the point where murder seemed like a great conflict resolution tool.

The other area in which Ms. Schmidt plays is Lizzie’s mental health. As with the extra character, I am not certain she is doing the story justice by calling into question Lizzie’s mental stability. It is very obvious that Ms. Schmidt believes Lizzie was the only person capable of committing the murders, but there is no indication in any primary documentation that she was suffering from mental health issues. The stream-of-consciousness type quality Ms. Schmidt adds to Lizzie’s narrative, the inability to discern between dreams and reality, her selfishness, her fascination with blood and the bodies, and her callousness during the immediate investigation all hint at a level of psychopathy that does not fit with historical witness accounts. While authors of historical fiction are always allowed to play with the truth in order to tell their story, this is one area of author’s license which seems to harm Lizzie’s story more than help it.

These few concerns were not enough to temper my enjoyment of the story in the end. Rather, I found the details of the murders and the Borden family dynamic fascinating. With a lack of definitive answers, we will never know just who killed Lizzie’s father and stepmother, but Ms. Schmidt does a decent job of presenting the known facts. Her version of Lizzie Borden is a damaged soul, searching for love in a household that seemingly provided very little. We will never know just how accurate Ms. Schmidt’s vision is, but outside of a few niggling issues with the dramatic license she takes with certain characters, for the most part See What I Have Done is a well-written depiction of August 4, 1892.

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