ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY GRADE: A-
Whether Lizzie Borden ever really took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks, then turned and gave her father 41, we’ll never know for sure; there was no CSI in 1892, and she was acquitted—in 90 minutes, no less—by a jury of her peers. So why do we still care so much? More than a century on, the legend of a mad blade-wielding spinster persists. Like so many others, Sarah Schmidt, the author of the richly imagined new novel See What I Have Done, became captivated by the crime long before she turned it into art. A librarian in Australia who worked on fiction in her spare time, she claims she was visited by Lizzie night after night in a recurring dream. Disturbed and intrigued, Schmidt steeped herself in Borden lore; she read trial transcripts and even flew 10,000 miles from her home in Melbourne to sleep in the house in Fall River, Mass., where her muse spent half her life and purportedly, one hot August morning, lost her mind.
Lizzie Borden wanted more than anything to be free. What she got instead was infamy.
See is the product of 11 years of that obsession, and it’s a prickly, unsettling wonder: a story so tactile and feverishly surreal it feels like a sort of reverse haunting. Of the book’s four narrators, three are pulled straight from history: Lizzie, her sister Emma, and the Borden’s live-in help, Bridget. The fourth, a violent drifter named Benjamin whose fate will collide with theirs in mostly unseen ways, is Schmidt’s own creation. Thirty-two-year-old Lizzie takes the lead, though she’s hardly an ordinary heroine: A virginal, high-strung woman-child, she is alternately indulged and oppressed, fussing over her pet pigeons and shoving gritty spoonfuls of sugar directly into her mouth when her imperious stepmother isn’t looking. She’s also a brat—bossy, petulant, and rude. Emma, a decade older, chafes nearly as much at the mean smallness of their lives, though she has the awareness to wear it more gracefully. (And the resources to find her own escape as the houseguest of a sympathetic friend.) Irish-born Bridget, homesick and overworked, has come to hate her casually cruel employers; the furious Benjamin just hates everyone, especially the entitled fools who take for granted the many things he’s been denied.
The table of misery is set, but is there motivation enough for murder? It would spoil Schmidt’s literary game to say too much. What she does do, in dense, swooning paragraphs, is build an indelible mood.
by Leah Greenblatt for Entertainment Weekly