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Book Review: See What I have Done


Based on the real life murder mystery that has captured imaginations worldwide for over a century, See What I Have Done paints a new picture beyond the simple “whodunit” formula. Here, we get an intimate (almost too intimate) look into a dysfunctional family in middle class America in the late 19th century.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: “someone’s killed Father.” What follows is a narrative told from 4 very different perspectives and the almost ancillary investigation into the brutal murder of Lizzie’s father Andrew and stepmother Abby Borden. While many clues point to Lizzie as the murderer, there are more unanswered questions than there are answered questions. However, the focus becomes increasingly more about the strange family dynamic than the murder itself, which plays out through the multiple narrations. As the police ( and the reader with them) searches for clues, Lizzie’s increasingly disconnected memory of that morning flash by in fragments. Others close to the family also weigh in via the different narratives and it what seemed to be on the surface a normal Massachusetts family becomes clear that it is anything but. We have the controlling father with a fierce temper, the spiteful and  unbalanced stepmother, and the two spinster sisters – Lizzie and Emma whose bond seems unnaturally close, yet their relationship is very much a love- hate one.

This novel has a feverish tone to it as it is told by Lizzie, Emma, the maid Bridget and a mysterious, yet dangerous stranger named Benjamin, who is linked to the girls’ uncle John. There is something quite visceral about the way it portrays the stifling atmosphere of the house in which the murder occurs reflecting the sweltering summer in which the murder took place and intimate details of the mysterious illness that seems to affect everyone but Lizzie.

The detail of the more gorier details of the events leading up to and just after the murder are a little hard to take at times and not for the faint hearted, but it is a rich and beautifully told narrative that focuses on the timeline, so we the reader automatically become both detective and intimate observer all at once.

Many questions abound as key elements of the protagonists’ backstories are deliberately left out, and we are invariably left to make up our own minds about what really happened, but it was never the goal for this novel to fill in any gaps. Overall Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel is a thrilling read from beginning to end, but take it all with a grain or two of salt.

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