Australian author Sarah Schmidt plunges readers into one of America’s most notorious true crime stories with her fiction debut, See What I Have Done. In August 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found bludgeoned to death by axe in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Who killed the Bordens, and why? Evidence pointed to Andrew’s adult daughter, Lizzie, but she was acquitted. Popular myth never let her quite off the hook (you’ve heard that eerie nursery rhyme). But was she really guilty?
See What I Have Done is interested in this question, but perhaps not as much as some readers might be. Schmidt eschews the “whodunit” format to focus on the warped relationships and deep resentments that hover over the house in Fall River. Told in the voices of Lizzie; her older sister, Emma; the family maid, Bridget; and a mysterious stranger named Benjamin, who comes to town with LIzzie’s sinister Uncle John, the novel turns that August afternoon around and around, examining it in microscopic detail from these four separate angles like a jeweler making an appraisal of a singularly dark gem. Lizzie and Emma have a codependent yet contentious relationship, and neither can stand their stepmother. Bridget can’t get over Mrs. Borden’s refusal to let her go home to Ireland. And Uncle John is holding a grudge against his brother, Andrew.
Schmidt sketches the motivations of her characters with subtle strokes, allowing readers to fill in some notable blanks—what is Uncle John’s deal, anyway?—but she leaves little to the imagination when it comes to their physical bodies. The damage done to the Borden parents is described with visceral relish; the scents of vomit, sweat and blood are almost palpable. Like her fellow Australian Hannah Kent, whose debut novel, Burial Rites, also centered on a real-life 19th-century crime, Schmidt conjures the explosive mix of claustrophobia and frustration that life in a small community with a rigid social structure can engender. See What I Have Done is a chilling summer read.