The blurb of See What I Have Done concludes with the tag-line “You know the rhyme. You don’t know the story.” It’s alarmingly accurate, because before I read this fictional retelling of the life and crimes(?) of Lizzie Borden, I knew basically nothing about her beyond the schoolyard chant.

Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one

See What I Have Done - Sarah Schmidt - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Turns out, there’s a bit more to the story than that. Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother were indeed hacked to death with an axe in there Massachusetts home, on 4 August 1892. Lizzie was the one to discover her father’s body, calling out to the maid that ‘someone’s killed Father’. After a brief investigation, Lizzie was charged with the murder and put to trial – only to be acquitted, largely because the jury found it hard to fathom that a delicate, feminine little lady could commit such a heinous crime.

So, officially, the murders have never been solved, and they’ve been rich fodder for pop culture ever since. There’s been movies, TV shows, musicals, plays, novels, and of course the skipping rope rhyme. So, Sarah Schmidt ventured onto well-trod ground when she wrote See What I Have Done.

Schmidt’s version of the story is told through the eyes of four narrators: Lizzie; her sister, Emma; her maid, Bridget; and a creepy stranger, Benjamin. Each of them has their own motivation for wanting the senior Bordens dead, each of them has their own secret knowledge about the nature of the crime. Schmidt doesn’t style See What I Have Done as a whodunnit, though, and there’s no neat answer to ‘solve’ the crime by the end. Instead, she gives the reader glimpses into possibilities, what could have happened, and leaves us to drawn our own conclusions about the identity of the murderer. Really, it’s not even her focus – the focus is the Borden family.

In Schmidt’s retelling, the Bordens were all kinds of toxic. The father is prone to fits of violence, the stepmother is narcissistic and cruel, the spinster sisters are desperate to escape but inextricably entangled in each other, and given all that, it’s unsurprising cracks formed in the family unit. The claustrophobia of the Borden house is symbolised in the recurring motif of the pot of mutton stew, bubbling away on the stove for days and making each member of the Borden household sick in turn (presumably a clever nod to the accusation that Lizzie Borden tried and failed to poison her parents before taking to them with an axe).

See What I Have Done is full of rich, sensory descriptions, particularly smells that will have you wrinkling your nose. You’ll lose track of how many times characters vomit, how many times they find flecks of blood, and how often they feel stifled by the heat. It’s highly effective, but hardly a pleasant reading experience. Schmidt’s clear talent for vivid writing almost works against her, in that sense.

As with any book with multiple narrators, there’s one that steals the show – in this case, it’s Lizzie, unreliable and unsettled and dishonest as she might be. She’s childlike in the most chilling way, the kind of immature brat that can’t see past the end of her own nose but you could totally believe would kill her parents in a petulant fit. You’d think that having her narrate the story (in part, at least) would force Schmidt’s hand in revealing her innocence or culpability – not so. With some clever narrative sleight of hand, Lizzie’s guilt remains ambiguous. It’s not even clear whether she knows whether or not she did it.

The strength of Lizzie’s voice meant that there was some unrealised potential, in my opinion, in the perspectives of Bridget and Benjamin. See What I Have Done could have even been a two-parter, with the first volume of the story unfolding between Lizzie and Emma, then revisited with Bridget and Benjamin, giving us more scope to explore their stories. I was also disappointed to see the trial and Lizzie’s acquittal effectively skipped over, retold from a distance in a few short paragraphs towards the end of the novel.

I suppose I can see Schmidt’s reasoning, though – the trial has been well covered in other fictional accounts of this sorry saga, and it would’ve been a distraction from The Point of See What I Have Done. Schmidt isn’t exploring who committed the murders of the senior Bordens, she’s interrogating why they might have happened, and where our sympathies could lie between the main players. It makes for a confounding and uncomfortable read, but one that provides great fodder for a book club discussion.

My favourite Amazon reviews of See What I Have Done:

  • “I disapointingly trudged through it as I read a novel that was basically about nothing much except Lizzie being a ADHD woman-child with a licking fetish.” – paintedrnlady
  • “I don’t know how it’s possible to make Lizzie Borden boring but this was about as exciting as reading a calculus textbook.” – suekitty13
  • “children might need sound effects, but adult readers do not need to be told that the clock went tick, tick. Or something went thump, thump, or rattle, rattle. Amateurish writing. I gave up after a few chapters.” – POV
  • “See What I Have Done is just a rehash of the facts of the time and the murders with Ms Schmidt’s opinions and imagination added to the story.” – Ann Bresnan