By the time I got halfway through See What I Have Done, I was totally in the mood to take an ax to somebody — and I mean that as a compliment.
Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel is a terrifically dread-inducing, claustrophobic, nightmarish immersion in a fictional version of one of the most famous crimes in American history. It’s known as the Lizzie Borden case, even though Lizzie was acquitted of the murders of her father, Andrew Borden, and stepmother Abby by an all-male jury whose members declared they didn’t believe a woman could commit such a crime.
Andrew and Abby died on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892, about an hour apart, hacked to death with an ax in their home in Fall River, Mass. At home that day were Lizzie, then 32, and a 26-year-old housemaid, Bridget Sullivan, who lived with the family. There was no evidence of forced entry. Lizzie’s sister, Emma, 42, was staying with a friend in a nearby town. John Morse, the brother of Andrew’s first wife (Emma’s and Lizzie’s mother), was visiting the Bordens but left the house early that day.
The murders became a national sensation, widely covered in the press. After Lizzie’s acquittal, no one else was ever charged.
Schmidt turns those facts about the case into a tense psychological study of family dysfunction, painted with a vividness bordering on the hallucinogenic. The reader is drawn into a house that feels as if it is slowly strangling its inhabitants.
Andrew Borden was a successful businessman and real estate investor, but as painted by Schmidt he’s also a domineering, dour tightwad. His wife, two adult daughters and maid live at each other’s elbows in the modest house, which is being cooked by an unusual heat wave.
Chapters are narrated alternately by Lizzie, Emma and Bridget, and occasionally by a mysterious fellow named Benjamin. They form a sliding scale of variously unreliable narrators, since everyone has (sorry) an ax to grind. Emma mightily resents Lizzie, who hates her right back, but they manage to…