Sarah Schmidt has truly made Lizzie Borden come alive again in her debut novel, See What I Have Done. The chilling tale of what happened on the fateful morning that the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden were found hacked to death with a hatchet is told from alternating perspectives throughout the book, enabling readers to begin to wonder–did she actually do it?
Schmidt made exactly the right decision when she chose to structure this book the way she did. By giving readers first-person accounts told by Lizzie herself, her sister Emma, the Bordens’ maid Bridget, and a mysterious man named Benjamin, we begin to see the dysfunction and instability in the Borden household and discover that not only did Lizzie have motive to kill her father and step-mother, but others did as well. Much of the story is focused on Lizzie and her strange behaviors that modern readers will recognize as signs of a deeply rooted mental illness; however, by presenting backstories for Bridget, Emma, and Benjamin, the multiple layers of despair, hatred, and a desire for revenge that Schmidt has imagined for her characters form a much darker picture of life inside the Borden house and the different paths on which parental neglect can set people.
Prior to reading See What I Have Done, I did not know much about Lizzie Borden beyond the old nursery rhyme, but I found myself incredibly interested in her story and conducting additional research as I read. News reports state the facts of the case, but Schmidt has filled in the blanks magnificently. The strangeness of Lizzie and Emma’s uncle John and his relationship to Lizzie, in particular, is simply creepy. The sacrifices Emma made throughout her life in order to tend to Lizzie’s emotional needs are heartbreaking, and Bridget’s resentment toward the family for their mistreatment of her and her homesickness made me connect with her the most on an emotional level.
However, what I think is most impressive about See What I Have Done is the brilliant way Schmidt describes even the most mundane details with such chilling diction. Everything about this book is described in terms of flesh and bone and blood, even something as simple as a crowded street, which is described as “thick with skin.” In addition, from the very first page and chapter, readers are introduced to Lizzie’s mental instability, providing a backdrop of the conflicting emotions of sympathy and suspicion throughout the book. Her chapters are filled with disjointed thoughts, possible hallucinations, and inappropriate thoughts and actions, like when she says, “I was being too secretive, I was being bad, I was, I was. I felt her nastiness crawl over my skin, tiny deaths that made me want to become nothing.” Her attachment to Emma is unhealthy, to say the least, and the details of their relationship enable readers to further understand Lizzie’s issues and provide a deeper theme of sacrifice for the sake of family.
I found See What I Have Done to be incredibly interesting, but I didn’t necessarily find it to be terrifying or a nail-biter of a book, as many other reviewers have. I was always intrigued by what would happen next, but I also never felt like I couldn’t put this book down. More than anything, I found myself feeling very unsettled, from start to finish. The inside of Lizzie Borden’s mind is not a comfortable place, and being exposed to her instability and disturbing thoughts and actions left me unnerved. Schmidt did a fantastic job of making me wonder if Lizzie was guilty or not, but the end of the book provides closure and answers a great deal of questions about what really happened that day; however, some of the most major of those details are so subtly woven into the story that they could easily be missed (I’m referencing the empty box, for those who have read it, without revealing any spoilers).
Overall, I enjoyed reading See What I Have Done and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys both historical fiction and suspenseful novels. I didn’t find it to be quite as terrifying as I thought I might, but it’s definitely a chilling and fascinating read.