Remember Lizzie Borden, accused then acquitted of murdering her father and step-mother with an axe in 1892? See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt’s, retelling of the story, is intensely and wonderfully insane. Also beautifully written.
When her father and step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden – thirty two years old and still living at home – immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.
Meanwhile, others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and their own stories to tell: Lizzie’s unmarried older sister, a put-upon Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie’s uncle to take care of a problem. *
What I thought of it
The writing is superb; the historical details are fascinating. Told as a multiple first person narrative, Sarah Schmidt puts us variously in the minds of Lizzie Borden, her sister, their maid and a hired thug.
The sections which are told from Lizzie’s warped perspective had me blinking and refocusing on the world around me just to try to retain my own sanity.
I felt most sorry for the maid, who seemed the sanest of the lot, but trapped by her precarious position in society. It becomes clear, though, that all women in the story are captives to their gender in some way.
At first the sister is set up as the sane one against Lizzie’s eccentricities, but every now and then she says something that has you frowning and wondering about her own sanity.
One of my favourite characters in the book was the house, which I know sounds daft, but Schmidt writes it in such a way that you really do feel like the house is part of the whole scene of horror. The Borden house doesn’t simply creak. It pops, it has unexplained smells coming in through the roof and it locks people in with its airless heat that magnifies the stench of blood throughout the house.
I was a little unsure of the narrative in the final quarter or so. It seems to take a few strange – and possibly unnecessary – turns which feel a little disjointed in time and place.
Overall, though, this was a gripping, beautifully written story of two murders which many contemporaries believed couldn’t have been committed by Lizzie Borden – simply because she was a female.
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* From the official publisher blurb.