See what I have done – Sarah Schmidt

After years of procrastination, last month I finally got my act together and started a book group. I rallied a few friends, set a date and picked a book from the Women’s prize long list which had just been announced. I chose Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done purely because it was one of the few that were already in paperback which would make it a bit more affordable.

I knew nothing else about the book, so when it arrived in the post and I discovered from the back cover that it was inspired by a real unsolved double murder in the United States, from 1892, I hoped I hadn’t put everyone off with a gruesome read. I needn’t have worried, as even though the book didn’t shy away from gore, it provoked strong reactions and gave us much to discuss in our inaugural meeting.

The story unfolds over the course of a few days leading up to and following the murders of Andrew and his second wife, Abby at the family home in Fall River shared with Andrew’s two daughters from his previous marriage, Lizzie and Emma, and the maid, Bridget. Following a multiple narrative structure, the story is told by Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and an itinerant stranger, Benjamin, who is enlisted by the girls’ Uncle John to ‘threaten’ Andrew in exchange for money. Through these four voices, a picture emerges of a claustrophobic home, bursting at the scenes with tension and strained relationships. Each of the four has a motive for murder, with each of the daughters feeling constrained and resentful, Bridget has had her savings stolen from her by Abby to prevent her from leaving and heading home to her family in Ireland, and Benjamin’s motivation is money.

Chapter by chapter, three of the characters are eliminated from suspicion, leaving us with the shocking realisation that these violent murders were carried out in cold detachment by a young woman. In the light of the evidence, the fact that she was not convicted has to have been a result of the disbelief that a women could be capable of such actions.

While the story of the murders takes centre stage in the book, it is also a novel of sensory explosion. The sense of claustrophobia in the house, and the popping wood suggesting that the very framework was about to splinter was juxtaposed with the breaching of corporeal boundaries, whether that be sweating, weeping wounds, bleeding and vomiting. The stench that oozed from every page, with sweating bodies, the aroma of oily, gone off, mutton stew hanging in the air, and the sweet rotten scent of over-ripe pears on the arbor outside all contributed to the visceral punch of the novel.

I went to the backyard. Along the fence was a full-bloom pear arbour, the sickly-sweet smell of half-eaten fruit thrown to the ground. I thought of the worms underneath churning earth, climbing over each other until their soft jelly bodies rolled into one. I pulled a pear and ate, juices on fingers and chin. There was a sharp twinge towards the back of my mouth and I reached my index finger inside, felt another loose tooth. I took hold, pulled and twisted, threw the tooth under the pear arbour.

There is also a darkly comic edge to the novel. When Benjamin breaks into the house hoping to locate Andrew, his prey, he moves from room to room, hiding to evade discovery, bringing a farcical element to the very moment when the bloody murders occur.

We all enjoyed the novel – despite being thoroughly revolted by it! If it’s possible we were even more spooked by the story of how Sarah Schmidt came to write about the case. After reading a pamphlet about the Lizzie Borden case peaked her interest, she discovered that the Borden house had been turned into a guest house. She packed her bags and her notebook and went to stay. The account of her experience there is truly terrifying. As of a couple of days ago we know that See What I Have Done didn’t make the shortlist of the Women’s prize – all I can say is it must have been really stiff competition. So, it wasn’t to be this time, but I can’t wait to see what Sarah Schmidt writes next!