Published by Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date: August 1st 2017
No one is free from the stain of darkness in Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done. Which may not be surprising because the novel is about Lizzie Borden and the death of her father and stepmother. If somehow you made it through childhood without hearing the rhyme about her, you’ll have to google it yourself. I, for one, was mildly obsessed. Mostly because the thought of a child murdering a parent was unthinkable to me. Even an adult child. Add to that, a woman chopping her parents up? No. Could not be real. Whether it was true or not has never been decided but this truth is not the one that occupies the novel. Instead, Schmidt invites not just Lizzie, but her sister, Emma, Bridget the housemaid, and a psychopathic stranger, Benjamin, to spill the unsavory secrets of the Bordens’ lives before their deaths.
This may be a novel about a gruesome act, but as created by Schmidt, it is the twisted psychology of this odd family that is more terrifying than any physical brutality. A father who finds pleasure in amassing wealth but not spending it, rigid in his control over his daughters who must live at home. Who sends Lizzie on a grand tour of Europe but later slaughters her pigeons because they may carry disease. Abby, who dotes on her stepdaughters in public, but tells them privately how much their father hates them. Lizzie is disturbed, taken to talking to herself and, at thirty-three, still acting like a spoiled child—leaving half-eaten plates of food under her bed, refusing to clean up after herself, making demands and getting what she wants, but paying a price for it with a father who won’t let her leave home, who keeps her reeled in tight with his money. Even sisterly love, in Schmidt’s hands, is more of an anchor-weighted chain, binding Emma and Lizzie together as they sink between love and hate. In See What I Have Done, telling the innocent from the guilty is an impossible task.
See What I Have Done is atmospheric from start to finish. Everything in the novel is freighted with unpleasantness from a house that screams, stair treads that shriek, clothing seams that chafe, skin scratchy with dried sweat to kitchen walls that weep grease and furniture mottled with old food stains. With unique prose, nouns as verbs, and nasty shadows in the most innocuous places, Schmidt presents the novel as a virtual reality experience. The reader is surrounded by a landscape where everything is dirty in one way or another. By alchemizing words into sensations, Schmidt has turned See What I Have Done into a visceral experience.
I looked around my room, had that feeling that someone had reached inside my body and pulled me out backwards, had left me with nothing but animal noises dripping from behind my ears, loud then louder until I couldn’t hear myself think.