Review: See What I Have Done / Sarah Schmidt

I saw the ink-bled pigeon on the cover; it was beautiful. I heard the title; I was intrigued. When I discovered the story was about an infamous slaying, I couldn’t not read it.

I must admit my approach to Australian author Sarah Schmidt’s chilling debut See What I Have Done was tinted with classic writer’s envy. For months before its release I followed the book on twitter, read about it in blogs and saw it on book lists. The sceptical, jealous voice inside wondered why an Aussie librarian was writing about Lizzie Borden. The answer is: librarians are awesome, writer-librarians doubly so, and they should write whatever damn story they want!

As a child, even I’d heard the creepy skipping-rope rhyme about the girl who took an axe… but the book isn’t concerned with a visceral play-by-play of the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden (father and step-mother to Lizzie and Emma). Hitchcockian in tone and eerie in its delivery, it’s less mystery than an investigation into the machinations of a dysfunctional family.

Rather than the sweeping landscape vistas I tend to favour, See What I Have Done is a picture window onto the thoughts and fears of multiple players in the Falls Creek house: Lizzie, Emma, Irish housemaid Bridget, and outsider Benjamin. The relationship between sisters Lizzie and Emma is particularly compelling. In their unnerving exchanges, Lizzie reveals an extreme emotional reliance on her older sister, which translates into a bitter resentment Emma contains for the sake of their long-deceased mother. At thirty-two, Lizzie is characterised not as a spinster, but as a demanding and immature child. The Borden house is permeated with unrequited emotional needs, which remain unmet. There is a disturbing Freudian psychology to the diorama posed in See What I Have Done.

Schmidt is inspiring in her command of language. Rather than be bogged down by awkward historical parlance, See What I Have Done has a surprisingly contemporary feel. There is poetry layered in characters’ streams of consciousness:

“Father, Mother, dreams, baby Alice, a walk along the river, a failed attempt at love, Lizzie, a groaning moon, the death of things, Abby… stitching together to make a covering, a second skin”

I finished See What I Have Done and was left with awe. This is a haunting exploration of the dark heart of supposedly gentrified souls.

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