Everyone knows how much I love the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and this year I’m more determined than ever to read all of the shortlisted books. When the longlist was recently announced I was really excited to see such a diverse range of books, including some I already had sitting handily on my shelf.
One of the books I already owned was See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. This book had a lot of hype surrounding it when it was initially released, so the fact that it’s been longlisted for the prize was just an extra incentive to pick it up. It’s actually an historical crime novel which takes inspiration from the case of Lizzie Borden. Lizziewas an American woman who became infamous after being accused of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in 1892. In this novel Schmidt uses this crime to delve deeper into the lives of the family, exploring the dynamics and relationships between them whilst also exploring what might trigger someone to commit such an atrocious crime.
The opening of this novel is a great piece of skilled crime fiction, starting with the simple declarative ‘He was still bleeding’ (p. 3). We are given a compelling, shocking opening in which this brutal murder is passed into the mind of the reader. The author is careful to limit the amount of details given to her readers; they are clear enough for us to work out the gruesome nature of the crime, yet kept sufficiently simple that our imagination begins to create its own shocking ideas. Contrasting with this is the calm, quite controlled first person narrative we get from Lizzie herself. Her reactions and thoughts seem completely at odds with the terrible things which have happened. As such, an unsettling tension is created between the horror of the crime and Lizzie’s demeanour, prompting the reader to questions her actions and make them even more desirous to discover the truth.
Lizzie’s is not the only narrative which we are given in this novel. We are also treated throughout to other points of views, including that of Lizzie’s sister and the family maid. Multiple perspectives are quite a common feature in crime novels for good reason; they amp up the tension massively, letting the reader flick between people who could all offer some sort of potential towards being the killer, or helping us catch the killer. The same technique is used effectively in this novel, which means that although we suspect Lizzie, the author is able to create subtle trails which intensify our confusion and doubt. These multiple perspectives begin to act as character witnesses, allowing us to question the characters themselves as well as the information we already know.
What I will say about this novel is that the characterisation itself is amazing. We get a group of several characters whom we come to know quite intimately across the duration of the novel. It’s a brilliant layering of characters against other characters which builds and builds this incredibly vivid tale. Each and every person who features in this novel is brought to life through the authors incredibly clear and precise writing, making them all unique and powerful in their own rights. Likewise, because of the skillful personalities she has built up around the characters, the author is able to steer our own emotions in certain directions. I was surprised, for example, by the enormous dislike I felt for Lizzie, even if I was ignoring the fact that she is a potential murder! On the other hand, characters such as the maid were ones which I felt such heartbreaking sympathy towards. I felt that I knew their history and their personal lives, and that I was connected to them and their outcomes. Whether you liked or loathed a character, each one is entirely three-dimensional and acknowledged as having their own life and past.
As a direct result of this authors fantastic development of her characters, the family dynamics within this novel are a joy to delve into and explore. It was really interesting to get a backstory, even if fictionalised, to a crime which is so infamous. We get many different perspectives from within the members of the household which strengthens the overall plot of the novel itself. Without these details and emotions of the Borden family life, the novel and the murders might have come across as quite flat, but witnessing such strange and unique family relations really strengthened the novel overall. It was also really entertaining again to see the author play with us slightly, making us hesitant to trust certain characters because of the complexities of the family.
Although this can be marketed as a crime novel, this is in no way a quick, action packed read. On the contrary, this is a novel which takes it time to develop, allowing the suspense to build up slowly over time. In many ways, although not everyone likes the term, the best way to describe this would be as a literary piece of crime fiction, almost along the same lines as Truman Copote’s In Cold Blood. The author is in no rush to gather the novel towards any sort of conclusion, preferring to study the characters themselves as opposed to the crime committed. I did find at times that this did become somewhat frustrating because of the way the novel jumps between memories of the past and the realities of the present day. Often I was incredibly eager to stay in the present and to keep up with the murder investigation, whilst in reality we spend much more time in the past following what may have led the characters to this pivotal point.
The only other thing which did sometimes trouble me was the way in which Lizzie is continually presented. I struggled quite often to reconcile Lizzie’s character as something realistic and feasible, because I just couldn’t wrap my head around how someone could be so selfish, especially in regards to their sister. When the murders were committed Lizzy was in fact a grown adult, so some of the choices she makes and the ways she speaks and treats people were just really difficult to accept. On the other hand this is probably a testament to the writers ability to influence my thoughts and feelings towards her characters!
I really enjoyed this novel and I’m very happy that I kicked off my Women’s Prize for Fiction with it! If you’re after a thrilling novel which is a fast paced story of a gruesome muder, than this probably wont be the one for one. I personally thought that this was a brilliantly written and well executed novel which tells a fascinating tale about how these murders might have come into being. It’s disturbing and insightful, but above all a wonderful fictionalised account.
Publisher: TInder Press