There are stories that we all know, they’re woven into the fabric of our society so much that we can all recite a version of them at the drop of hat. Stories like Cinderella, Aladdin and Harry Potter.
(Ok, maybe just me on that last one)
Then there are stories that we all think we know, the kind that would have us smiling confidently if they were the beginning of a question on a pub quiz, but would then leave us completely flummoxed by the end.
Robin Hood for example, we all know what happens there right. Robin Hood lives in Sherwood Forest, and he takes money from the rich and gives to the poor and Tony Robinson runs about sporting a rather dodgy goatee. There’s a love interest as well – Maid Marian – and she… well something happens to her probably. Kidnapped or locked up.
Alan Rickman turns up as well at some point… and where exactly does the cartoon fox come into it?
If you’d asked me a week ago if I knew the story of Robin Hood, I would have sworn blind that I did, but now that I think about it, I actually can’t quite pinpoint all of the plot details.
Why am I talking about him? Only because I’ve just finished reading another book about a familiar figure whose story I thought I knew and I was fishing around for a comparable figure.
When I saw the rhyming couplet on the back of the proof copy of See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, I immediately gave a knowing nod:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks
When saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one
I thought I knew the story of Lizzie Borden. A little girl (probably blonde with pigtails and pink dungarees) who went crazy with an axe and killed her family in some remote house in America. No one knew if she had actually done it, or was the sole survivor of the massacre.
Like I say, I thought I knew the story, but when I heard about Schmidt’s novel I realised I wasn’t all that certain.
I had, as it turns out, slightly misunderstood the story. I definitely would have lost points on that pub quiz.
Lizzie Borden was no young girl, she was in fact, thirty two.
Nor was she the sole survivor of a massacre – it was just (!) the double murder of her father and step-mother.
So, what is the story? I’m not sure I’m going to tell you. Either you know it already, in which case my explanation will be pointless, or you don’t, in which case reading the book will be all the more rewarding.
Schmidt clearly knows the story, both the elements that are known and those which are not. She uses a narrative split four ways between Lizzie, her sister Emma, their maid Bridget, and – as far as I can tell – the thoroughly fictitious Benjamin, a low-life thug-for-rent.
The fact that Andrew and Abby Borden are killed on the morning of the 4th August 1892 is no secret, and Schmidt uses that to her advantage, allowing her characters to split the storytelling – Lizzie and Emma’s viewpoints starting moments after the death of their parents, and Bridget and Benjamin’s viewpoints starting the day prior.
Straight away Lizzie is a thoroughly unreliable narrator and Schmidt’s writing is clever enough that even through her own internal monologue she never reveals whether she ‘done it’ or not.
Benjamin is a clever invention from Schmidt to help tie up some of the unanswered questions from the events of those two days (my ‘research’ on Wikipedia tells me at least) and Bridget is built up well to the point that you could believe she many have been the culprit.
It is Emma, Lizzie’s elder sister, however that is perhaps the most interesting figure. A sad figure whose life seems to have been wasted in service of her younger, spoilt sister. She almost certainly didn’t do it – unless a convoluted theory involving a well-timed thirty mile round trip has any legs – and has the hints of a happy ending.
That is until you read on Wiki that she actually died just a week after Lizzie – a fact that makes her life seem even more melancholic, tied so closely as it was through her younger years to Lizzie’s.
Nobody knows who killed the Borden’s – so how does Schmidt end the story?
The truth is – SPOILER ALERT – she doesn’t solve the mystery, but she gives the reader enough information and supposition to make their own mind up.
See What I Have Done is a masterpiece in storytelling, planting the reader as the ultimate (and literal) fly on the wall of a house that is beset with unpleasantness, both before and after the murders.
The incidents of those few days seen through the eyes of all four characters could seem repetitive, but Schmidt cleverly avoids that by allowing the readers to embody the characters and witnessing the events as if for the first time.
Perhaps the most imposing character throughout the entire book is that of the Borden house. Schmidt’s description of it is so vivid that it feels instantly familiar and suffocating.
See What I Have Done is an intriguing, claustrophobic novel that instantly made me itch to know more about these gruesome murders. It is clearly a subject that Schmidt knows a lot about, but she manages to avoid the pitfalls of showing off, and instead presents a fantastic take on a tale we all thought we knew.
See What I Have Done is published in Hardback on 4th May 2017