I enjoy a good horror film, the darker and more psychological the better, however, when it comes to books I am more of a scaredy-cat. Weird but true. I think it is because I process things more intensely when I read and because I have a well-developed imagination, so the words conjure up more powerful images than a film might. Over the last year and a half, I’ve made a conscious commitment to expanding my reading horizons and a part of that is pushing myself to read books that challenge me in some shape or form.
I don’t do things by half, so I chose See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, which reimagines the story of Lizzie Borden (an alleged murderess, said to have viciously killed her stepmother and her father with an axe, and whose murder trial at the beginning of the 20th century, became the sensation of the time). It is told from the viewpoint of four main characters, each potential suspect with their own axe to grind (yes, I know, I had to go there): Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and a young man hired by Lizzie’s creepy uncle John to threaten her father, Andrew Borden.
My main thoughts on reading See What I Have Done:
The harsh, vivid and minute details: Sarah Schmidt can write! The description is gory, intimate, shocking and stomach turning. The writing style certainly had a powerful impact on me. Though it made me feel uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of not wanting to read more, it fully immersed me in the narrative at the same time so that I simply had to read on.
The claustrophobic atmosphere and setting, which feel wrong from the very beginning: At times I had to put the book down to have a breather, to put some distance between me and the intensity. As I read, I felt I was there in that hot, airless house; the darkness and tension wrapping themselves around me.
The warped, twisted relationships: These were crafted wonderfully, Schmidt really gets into the headspace of her characters and thoroughly explores the dynamics at play in the Borden House. I really got a strong sense of the toxic mixture of resentment, confusion, jealousy, authority and abandonment.
Lizzie herself: Above all, what stayed with me was Lizzie’s complex character; her mental instability, the sense that though the family may have tried to protect this erratic, confused, often wild, sometimes childlike and equally sinister woman, they couldn’t meet her needs. Lizzie’s narrative jumps from childlike language to sinister to needy in a heartbeat, you never quite know where you stand or what you should believe- very cleverly written and utterly disturbing.
In an afterword, Sarah Schmidt explains how she came to write about Lizzie, or rather how Lizzie found her! For me, this added another delicious layer to the narrative and I loved hearing about Schmidt’s experiences at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum. Yes, you can actually stay in the Borden house where the interiors are modelled on the original crime scene photos!
This is a book that gets under your skin and which continues to play with your mind long after you’ve finished reading it. It hooked me completely and produced strong emotions within. I can’t say I loved it or that I will read it again, yet I can with certainty say that it is an original, superbly written book.
P.S. If you fancy exploring further on the web (as I felt compelled to) then I can recommend: http://lizzieandrewborden.com/