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 unite to bully and make fun of their stepmother, who cowers and stews. And they all fawn over and fight with Andrew, who holds the purse strings.
Bridget watches it all and stashes her pay in a tin under her bed in the attic in hopes of one day returning to her family in Ireland. She does the Bordens' bidding when, for example, they ask her to relay messages when they're not speaking to each other, even if they're in the same room: "It had been funny at first, this fairy-tale way of speaking about each other. But when I saw Emma in the sitting room turning Mrs. Borden's photos face down on the mantelpiece, I wondered what exactly did fitting in mean?"
Schmidt keeps ratcheting up the simmering tension in the house, that feeling you get when you're so sick of someone you could slap them for the way they chew. In the summer heat, the women's skin prickles and sweats under their body-swathing, heavy clothing. The family keeps eating from a huge pot of mutton broth that sits on the stove for days, cooling and reheating like some monstrous food-poisoning experiment, with predictably queasy results — for the Bordens and the reader.
Every character's senses are on edge. Lizzie has manipulated Emma into letting her have a larger bedroom, relegating the older sister to a closet. Emma isn't happy about sleeping in Lizzie's former space: "Every day I was surrounded by my sister: clumps of auburn hair found on the carpet and in the sink; fingerprints on mirrors and doors; the smell of musk hiding in drapes. I would wake with my sister in my mouth, hair strands, a taste of sour milk, like she was possessing me."
Lizzie herself is almost preternaturally sensitive to smells and other stimuli. When she's questioned by police just after the murders, she notes, "The little room was cloying and heavy with the odor of warm bodies and grass, of police mouths smelling of half-digested chicken and damp yeast."
Schmidt skillfully manages the challenge of writing about a historical murder case by introducing elements that make us doubt what we think we know. Yes, Lizzie certainly looks like a suspect, especially after Andrew slaughters her beloved pet pigeons. But what of Uncle John's interest in the family money and his disturbing way of cuddling and caressing Lizzie? What of Emma's intense resentment of what she sees as Andrew's spoiling of Lizzie, and her sister's role in crushing her one chance at love (and escape)? How angry is Bridget that Abby has found and confiscated her savings? And what's the story with that creepy Benjamin?
In the United States, the Borden case remains well known, and not just in the grisly children's rhyme from which the novel derives its title: Lizzie Borden took an ax/and gave her mother 40 whacks/and when she saw what she had done/she gave her father 41. (The rhyme exaggerates; it was really 10 whacks for Abby, 11 for Andrew, crushing both their skulls — which were sensationally introduced as evidence in the trial.)
The Borden home in Fall River is now a popular bed and breakfast that features "ghost cams" and marked the 125th anniversary of the murders on Aug. 4 with re-enactments. (Schmidt stayed there several times while researching the book.) Lizzie, a movie starring Chloe Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as Bridget, is set for release this year, just the latest of several on-screen versions of the story.
In Schmidt's native Australia, the case is not as well known. She describes writing the book as something of a haunting. She was browsing at a second-hand bookstore one day when a pamphlet about Lizzie fell off the shelf.
"There she was," Schmidt said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. "I'd never heard of her. I read the pamphlet and put it back and I thought 'Whatever.' That night, I had a dream. Lizzie was sitting at the end of my bed and she said 'I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.' "
Lizzie kept coming back, Schmidt says, so she spent 11 years writing the book, which is already a bestseller in Australia and optioned for a television series.
I don't know whether many authors invite such haunting by their characters, but in Schmidt's case it led to a gripping and accomplished novel. Readers of See What I Have Done may feel haunted by Lizzie Borden, too.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.