SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, by Sarah Schmidt. Atlantic Monthly Press, 328 pp., $26.
Lizzie Borden — a Victorian New Englander tried and acquitted for the ax-murders of her stepmother and father — whetted our national appetite for tales of violent death. The swarming press and salacious public made her the O.J. Simpson of her day.
She is memorialized in the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum in Fall River, Massachusetts, where the crime stunned and stimulated a nation. The scene — skulls crushed among a prim, well-to-do family — defiled our cherished sense of domesticity.
And — 125 years later — she lingers in the jump-rope chant:
Lizzie Borden took an ax
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Our fascination continues partly because the mystery was never solved, the murder weapon never found. Its chief suspect shattered Victorian notions of the feminine. The public could barely imagine a woman, let alone a daughter, capable of poisoning — certainly never a bloody, effortful chopping. Scholars believe this failure of imagination helped land Lizzie her acquittal.
Now comes Sarah Schmidt, a clever Australian, whose imagination does not fail. She keeps the reader guessing about Lizzie’s innocence until the final seven words.
“See What I Have Done” is a barn-burning, fever-ridden first novel. It makes blistering reading out of first-rate historical fiction, which must walk the tightrope of established facts while fashioning a story anew. Hilary Mantel, in her brilliant re-creation of Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” and “Bringing Up the Bodies,” may be the best practitioner alive, but this book announces Schmidt as a new sister in the craft.
She begins without clearing her throat. The first chapter is “Lizzie, August 4, 1892,” and the first two sentences are “He was still, bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed Father.’ ” Father is Andrew Borden, 69, a prosperous and stingy property owner who lived the entirety of his life in Fall River. The narrator is Lizzie.
Schmidt stays entirely in the voices of Lizzie and three more narrators: Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister by a decade; Bridget Sullivan, the family’s Irish live-in maid; and Benjamin, a violent drifter and Schmidt’s fictional creation. He is a bold stroke, and gives the author a quasi-witness outside the Borden home.
“See What I Have Done” is the perfect title — it might be a command from any of these speakers. The reader dwells for hundreds of pages in the claustrophobic house at 92 Second St., in the oppressive August heat and in the churning, unhappy minds of this quartet. Before the book steps off, Schmidt plucks an aphorism from another famous New England spinster, Emily Dickinson: “We outgrow love like other things / And put it in the drawer.”
The Bordens are not merely loveless, their household seethes with malevolence. They practice all kinds of cruelties, some unintentional. Their days are filled with tedium; rancid mutton broth simmers and splashes in the kitchen. The roof creaks and pops and is a roost for Lizzie’s pet pigeons, which have their part to play.
Adding to the dread is a psychological haunting. The Borden daughters had a sister between them, Alice, who died at age 2. Their dead mother, Sarah Morse, adds an inescapable burden. She extracted a deathbed promise from 12-year-old Emma to protect and love toddler Lizzie, and another from her creepy brother John to watch over his nieces.
On the day of the murders, John is in Fall River. Emma, 42, is not; she is visiting an out-of-town friend. Emma yearns to break away from her miserable family: “I knew deep down that I ought to abandon the fanciful and take what was real, that I lived with my father and stepmother, lived with a sibling who would never give me up. My time to be anything, anyone, had slipped. I had to live with my disappointment and I wished Lizzie would do the same.”
Back home Lizzie is repeating a favorite childhood prayer, one Andrew taught her: “As the Lord liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.” The macabre surges, and Schmidt salts her book with repetition, casting an incantatory spell.
The writing is vivid to the point of hallucination. Emma notices a noisy neighbor, “her cabbage cheeks ballooned in talk.” Lizzie says, “Sweat ran down my temple, came to the corner of my mouth. I sipped it up. Nothing made sense anymore.”
Over and over, the mantel clock tick-ticks, a descendant of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” It is dark indeed.