The Lizzie Borden novel ‘See What I Have Done’ is packed with tension — and that’s a problem | Books

Thwarted escape plans abound. Bridget has been saving for years to return to Ireland; in the days before the killing, Abby confiscates the money. Emma had dreamed of marrying a kindly man named Samuel; out of a sense of familial obligation that never quite becomes legible, she does not. At home, Lizzie sulks over Emma’s absence and mourns the deaths of her beloved pigeons, slaughtered by her father (with an ax, no less). Meanwhile, a sociopathic drifter named Benjamin has been enlisted by John to help with an ominous-sounding family “problem;” John never spells out exactly what this errand involves, but Benjamin — whose consciousness is a stream of inchoate rage and violent fantasies — seems to have some ideas of his own. 

The intention behind illuminating these cross-cutting resentments must have been to create a cat’s cradle of suspense, in which any character might be the one to snap. But something like the opposite effect seems to happen on the page. By making almost every character seem capable of ax murder — and almost every character seem at least a little bit worthy of it — the novel blunts the singularity and mystery of the event itself. Instead of drawing its energy from the question How could this have happened?, the novel seems to revolve around the premise How could it not have? 

This is not to say there aren’t intriguing tensions running through the book. Schmidt seems aware that the really compelling question isn’t whether Lizzie killed her parents — she’s portrayed as so straightforwardly unhinged and callous that it costs us nothing to believe she did —  but why Emma, a much more lifelike creation, is so committed to believing she did not. There are moments that gesture toward a deeper exploration of this more interesting — and in some ways, more tragic — theme. 

“The life I’d had was disappearing,” says Emma after the murders. “Every adult that had ever held me as a baby was dead and no one would ever carry me…

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