Wednesday, 7 December 2016

See What I have done - Sarah Schmidt - darkly re-imagined

As soon as I saw this title being tweeted about I knew it was one I wanted to read. A clever literary novel based firmly on horrific historical factual events. It cried out "read me"

And Ohh I'm glad I did and now I've read it I can't wait to begin talking about it - so here are my impressions.

It’s taking the literary world by storm, this sinister work of fiction based on the true events around the notorious century serial killer Lizzie Borden. That it's a debut is hard to credit, so accomplished is the writing.

Recent novels have seen fictionalized accounts of Victorian murders gaining popularity. Earlier this year I greatly enjoyed the Unseeing by Anna Mazzola and there are several more literary true crime thrillers I’ve yet to read.

See What I have Done is very much a whodunnit. Even though Lizzie Borden became synonymous with grisly parenticide spawning the schoolyard chant “Lizzie Borden took an axe, she gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty one” the axe in question was never found and all the evidence to damn her was circumstantial thus she was acquitted of this heinous crime.

So, knowing this, we enter the Fall River home of Mr and Mrs Borden with some trepidation, just as Lizzie cries out to the housemaid Bridget “Someone has cut Father” (the understatement of the century) and sets in motion the sinister events which play out in the Borden household.

The book is narrated in several unique voices, Lizzie herself tells much of the story, parts are told by her older sister Emma, maid Bridget voices her side of things and a mysterious and violent stranger Benjamin enters the mix to observe from the sidelines and blur the facts.

We dash back and forth in time, looking back into the past to be reminded of how Mrs Borden is actually the girls stepmother, we relive the girls upbringing and we go ahead years after the murder and back again to the hours in the aftermath of this bloodbath and all the time there is an underlying nastiness, a pervading sickness of body and mind that seeps through the very walls of this Victorian American household.

What I found more distasteful than the description of the discovery of 2 dismembered bodies is the vomiting, frequent and plentiful vomiting throughout the book! I don’t think there is one lead character who doesn’t spew their guts up at least once – no wonder the place stinks! I read it with a lingering feeling of nausea from beginning to end! And throughout the book the clock on the mantlepiece ticked, ticked setting the creeping sense of menace.

There is a lingering sense of resentment, between the two sisters a strange love/hate relationship between the 2 young women, their Uncle John is a curiously unpleasant type, in fact there’s not one truly nice person, with perhaps the exception of Bridget who appears the least loathsome character, thoughout the book.

I won’t say too much about the storyline as my trying to recount the tale itself would be pointless, it’s the authors beautiful use of words and the inimical, lyrical style of writing which give this novel its sheer quality, so I will just say "read it and see, for yourself, what she has done".

This book is imaginatively reconstructed and beautifully written, the picture painted and the odours described have left me wiping my hands after putting down the book and I’m sure when I lift it to my nose I can smell lingering rancid mutton broth and the sweet rottenness of over ripe pears.

This is a book that slithers into your consciousness and overtakes your awareness like blood seeping into the floorboards of your mind.

If you love gory, chilling and unnerving storytelling and are a keen logophile you'll thrill at the stomach churning unease and delight at the succinct choice of words in this stunningly told book.

The Blurb

When her father and step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden - thirty two years old and still living at home - immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.

Meanwhile, others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and their own stories to tell: Lizzie's unmarried older sister, a put-upon Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie's uncle to take care of a problem.

This unforgettable debut makes you question the truth behind one of the great unsolved mysteries, as well as exploring power, violence and the harsh realities of being a woman in late nineteenth century America.

Accolades (from Goodreads)

Haunting, gripping and gorgeously written, SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE by Sarah Schmidt is a re-imagining of the unsolved American true crime case of the Lizzie Borden murders, for fans of BURIAL RITES and MAKING A MURDERER.

'Eerie and compelling, Sarah Schmidt breathes such life into the terrible, twisted tale of Lizzie Borden and her family, she makes it impossible to look away' Paula Hawkins

1 comment:

  1. Great review Jan and this is definitely going on my 'must have' list!


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