‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt

UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 336 pages; 2017.

When Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done came out in 2017 it generated a lot of book publicity. This was backed up by a slew of prize listings — including, for example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction and The Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Crime. It went on to win two key prizes in Schmidt’s native Australia: The ABIA Literary Fiction of the Year 2018 and the Mud Literary Award 2018.

Set in the US in the 19th century, it is based on a true story: the brutal murder, by axe, of a husband and his second wife in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden, the husband’s 32-year-old daughter, was convicted of the crime but acquitted.

This fictionalised account examines Lizzie’s possible culpability but does not provide any clear cut answers.

Different perspectives

The tale is told from various different perspectives in alternate chapters: Lizzie’s steady and responsible older sister Emma; the Borden’s hard-working Irish servant Bridget, who is saving up to return home; an enigmatic and violent stranger called Benjamin, whom may (or may not) have been hired to commit a crime against Mr Borden; and Lizzie herself.

The narrative, which is divided into three parts, jumps around a bit in terms of timeline, so some chapters are set on the day of the murder — 4 August 1892 — while others are set the day before or the day after. Section three opens almost 13 years later, before spooling back to talk about the day of the funerals.

This backwards and forwards movement gives the reader the opportunity to see how actions can be pre-planned, how things said in the past can take on different meanings in the present, and helps paint a picture of a small but complex family rife with petty jealousies, rivalries and injustices.

Failed to engage 

But I had problems with this book. I just could not engage with any of the characters. I felt like I was always one step removed from them, or that I was watching their movements through a window, never able to quite make them out through the smears on the glass.

I think this was partly to do with the fact that the voices of the characters are too similar. They almost blended into one, so I couldn’t really distinguish them. Only Bridget, with her use of  “ya” and working class English, sounded slightly different to the others.

Australian edition

And the story felt too drawn out. I wanted to hear more about the conviction and the trial, but these are only mentioned in passing right near the end, and I’m none the wiser as to why Lizzie was arrested in the first place, much less why she was acquitted by a jury.

(That said, there’s enough meat here to figure out her motivations for potentially carrying out the brutal deed.)

On a more positive note, I liked Schmidt’s prose style and her ability to paint vivid pictures using fragmentary sentences and original adverbs (“saliva-wet baby hands”, “a red-fox vixen scream”, “her stale-wood dressing table”). There’s a heavy emphasis on odours (the smell of rotting pears, rotted meat), on sounds, on the wetness of things — and both Lizzie and Benjamin seem obsessed with licking whatever they can see. This brings scenes to life, nicely aided by authentic sounding dialogue.

And there are recurring motifs — pigeons, pears, mutton and vomit — that ties everything together.

But on the whole See What I Have Done just didn’t do it for me.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2019; my 6th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 25th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in hardcover not long after it had been released because there was such a “buzz” about it. Plus, the hardcover was a thing of beauty, with orange-edged paper and an attractive cover image. But then it sat on my shelf unread and, in fact, it’s still there — in London. The copy I actually read was the Australian edition, large-format paperback, which I borrowed from Fremantle Library last week.

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5 thoughts on “‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt

  1. I have often heard the name Lizzie Borden, and perhaps Lizzie Borden – axe murderer, without ever knowing anything about her. I am dubious about what an Australian would bring to the story, but maybe it was one that resonated with the author for some reason.

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    • I’d never heard of the Lizzie Borden case until this book got released but everyone in the UK seemed to know about it… not sure why… and yes, I’m not sure an Australian brings anything new to the story… which is kind of how I felt about Burial Rites… wasn’t convinced that it was an Australian’s story to tell.

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  2. Pingback: 20 books of summer 2019 recap – Reading Matters

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