See What I Have Done

Written by Sarah Schmidt
Review by Marina Maxwell

Lizzie Borden’s acquittal for the murder of her father and stepmother has already generated numerous books, films and plays, even musicals. Whether the world needs another retelling of this infamous “did she, or didn’t she” story is debatable, but there is no doubt it ranks along with Jack the Ripper as an enduring subject of fascination.

Told through four first-person narratives—those of Lizzie, her elder sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget, and a fictional character, Benjamin—this is a new exploration of what might really have happened at 92 Second Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892.

This is not an easy read and comes with a warning if you are at all squeamish. The writing is powerful, abrupt and confrontational, with startling, offbeat metaphors that grab hold and forcibly drag you into this oppressive world of locked doors, unjust accusations and abusive family power. There are sinister undercurrents in everything, from house timbers that “whip” rather than creak, the sensuous symbolism of a hot summer and biting into juicy pears, to the “thick stain of heat and blood, of broken muscle and bone,” and everywhere there are rotting smells, like sulphuric bad breath and the all-pervasive week-old mutton stew that bubbles not just on the stove but through the bowels of its residents, with inevitable consequences.

Because each narration is in this style, the individual voices are not always as distinct from one another as they might be, and Bridget’s is perhaps the most cohesive. Benjamin’s story isn’t wholly convincing, perhaps because he is basically a device to explain how some forensic evidence might have gone missing.

So, did she do it? The fact that the 19th-century all-male jury couldn’t believe a delicate young woman capable of such horrendous acts may help you to decide.