See What I have done by Sarah Schmidt

Review by Kylie Thompson


Rating: 4 and a half stars

Genre: historical fiction, historical retellings

Publisher: Hachette Australia


Lizzie Borden took an axe
Gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one

There’s something about the story of Lizzie Borden that lingers in the imagination. What drives a young woman from a wealthy family to snatch up an axe and murder her father and stepmother? Even today, a young woman crazed enough to not just murder her father and step mother, but to butcher them utterly with an axe, seems astounding.

But could she, really, have done such damage? Or was someone else there that day, forcing Lizzie into the role of the hapless sacrificial lamb in the town’s drive for justice?

In ‘See What I Have Done’, author Sarah Schmidt has recreated the events leading into, and away from, the crime. Through the eyes of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, housemaid Bridget, and the mysterious brawler and problem solver, Benjamin, readers can take a haunting walk through the Borden house, and stare down the ghosts lingering inside. In turns eerie, visceral, and profoundly heartbreaking, ‘See What I Have Done’ takes the myth of the Borden murders and lays the heart of it bare.

It would have been easy for Schmidt’s debut novel to be a gruesome, sensationalist depiction, a bit of titillation for the voyeuristic readers of history. Too easily, research could have given way to the caricatures of the myth. Lizzie could have been a crazed, horrifying monster on the page, a rictus grinning stereotype rather than a living, breathing woman. And yet, Schmidt has crafted a loving, tender story of family turmoil and a trio of women in need of something more than the lives they’ve been forced into. Though there’s a darkness to Lizzie- to all of the characters haunting the pages- you can’t help but to be captivated by, and sympathetic to, her story.

It’s hard not to love ‘See What I Have Done’. It’s a masterful retelling of the legend of Lizzie Borden that goes beyond the sensationalist murder to the family story beneath. This isn’t a story of certainties, and there’s more than enough doubt about Lizzie’s guilt to make for tense, edge-of-your-seat reading. But it’s in the quiet moments of desperation and devastation that you can’t help but realise Schmidt has all the hallmarks of a must-read author. If this is Schmidt’s first novel, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

There’s beauty to Schmidt’s prose, a blend of morbidity and poetry that’s captivating to read. ‘See What I Have Done’ doesn’t shy away from the murders, and yet Schmidt is the sort of writer to add a dark kind of wonder to the scene, adding a touch of what could be madness, or desperation, or some great nameless something that drives each character away from their homes, and their families, in search of something more.

‘See What I Have Done’ is published by Hachette Australia, and can be found at all good retailers.


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