Book-Thirsty Thursday: See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt


Sarah Schmidt, in her debut novel, takes on the case of Lizzie Borden, but weaving in other key perspectives takes See What I Have Done to a new level.

Just last year, Rolling Stone dubbed Lizzie Borden a part of “modern American mythology“, even if a jury never convicted her of murdering her stepmother and father with a famous ax. Shows like Ghost Adventures have visited Fall River, Massachusetts to try and speak with Abby and Andrew Borden. (One has to wonder if The Lowe Files will give it a shot, too.) So, what better way for an author to take her first shot at writing than by diving in to the psyche of someone who may have committed murder? That’s Sarah Schmidt’s goal in See What I Have Done, our pick of the week for Book-Thirsty Thursday (at least partially in honor of the impressive release timing — the anniversary is this week).

Throughout the read, the word that kept popping up to me was visceral. It’s not just that the book is about a double murder, which basically makes it qualify. It’s in Schmidt’s constant reminders of how these characters are sweating, their smells, their base humanity. Yes, it’s a little gross, but again: we’re talking about a book that involves a double ax murder at its core.

You may want to know if the book depicts the actual murders. The answer to that question may be construed as a spoiler. Let’s put it in a milder way: See What I Have Done is not for the faint of heart.

Of course, Schmidt doesn’t just focus on Lizzie, either. Three other characters have their say in what went on in August of 1892: Benjamin, who’s more connected to the case than he seems; Bridget, the Bordens’ Irish maid who just wants to go home; and Emma, Lizzie’s older sister. This is both a key strength of the book and a key weakness. Lizzie’s perspective alone can get a bit confusing. The other three also have their own extended flashbacks, creating a somewhat dizzying kaleidoscope effect that occasionally makes it hard to remember just where and when each character is when they’re having their long, very detailed memories of previous incidents.

But, eventually, Schmidt pulls the bulk of it together, concentrating her interpretation of the case and letting it all unfold. It might take some time to get there. Although the book isn’t that long, there are parts where it feels like it does drag on a touch too long. It might be an attempt to mimic the summer heat that also pervades the world contained inside the book, but it falls somewhat flat, alas.

Despite that, though, the character work here is quite fascinating. Emma, Lizzie, and Bridget in particular have very distinct personalities, voices, wishes, and desires, and seeing them in such close quarters does wonders for revealing their layers of personality. Of course, since they all do live together, they also have opinions on each other, which lets Schmidt present alternative sides to each character with ease. She does it well.

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Ultimately, See What I Have Done goes deep, and because of that, it becomes a better read. You could go watch the Ghost Adventures episode and see two dudes attempt to make contact with the other side, or you could sit down and get a much more fascinating, if definitely fictional as opposed to “reality TV” approach to Lizzie Borden (maybe) picking up an ax.