Lizzie Borden took an axe
and gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one
Here is the U.S., most of us have at least heard the above rhyme, even if we have no idea where it comes from. If you aren’t familiar, it comes from one of the most fascinating and gruesome unsolved murders in the country’s history. Sarah Schmidt’s new novel See What I Have Done peels back the sordid skin of the story and takes a look at the troubled characters who lived behind those four simple lines of that dreadful rhyme. My friend Katy Goodwin-Bates was kind enough to send me a copy of the book (it came out a couple months ago in her native England), and we had a far-reaching discussion about the book. And about pears. Just keep reading…
Katy: Firstly, the Lizzie Borden story isn’t, I think, very well-known here in the UK. I vaguely recall it being mentioned a lot in a YA book I read a long time ago, although I can’t remember what it was, which is very annoying. What was your level of familiarity with the background to the book before reading? Is it really well-known over there?
David: Yes and no. It’s a name people have an awareness of, and a story most people have heard at some point, but it’s not a part of popular mythology or anything. That’s basically where I was. I had read about it at some point, but didn’t have any clear impression of what had happened. I had heard the name, and I remembered the rhyme once I heard it. Let’s discuss the obvious Shirley Jackson parallel. The first word I wrote down, just a few pages into the novel, was “Merrikat,” and then when i read your review, I saw you noticed the same thing.
Katy: Absolutely. There are so many parallels; the sisters, the did-she-didn’t-she murders, the gothic setting and even the rhymes about the protagonists. It’s not even just We Have Always Lived in the Castle; I’ve read a lot of Jackson this year and See What I Have Done reminded me a lot of The Bird’s Nest as well, with its shifts in narrative perspective. Usually when I compare a book to something else it’s damning it with faint praise; I generally mean the book I’m discussing is a less-good version of what I’m comparing it to, but I didn’t feel that way here. I was thrilled to read a new novel in that style; it’s not like Shirley’s going to be writing any more, after all.
So you made the association too; was this a positive for you?
David: Mostly. It was very well done, and she more or less hit the same notes as Jackson did in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The only downside of it was that it was almost too close of a match. I felt like I was reading a book that actually starred Merrikat in a new setting. It’s a meticulous match, which is admirable on one hand, but I think I would have preferred an homage that allowed for some differentiation.
Katy: The general grossness of See What I Have Done made me think of Ottessa Moshfegh too; all the vomit and odours drew a direct line in my brain to that woman in Homesick for Another World who has deoderant fluff in her armpits. Did you find any of the language here off-putting? Did you think it could have gone further? I liked how visceral it was. I also like using the word visceral.
David: I saw you made that connection in your review, and while I see where it comes from, I didn’t feel quite the same way. There’s definitely some gore, and some unpleasantness, but I felt like it was significantly more stylized than Moshfegh’s writing, in which that stuff is intentionally unvarnished to make it even harder to deal with. Schmidt didn’t spare any details, but she also put a gloss over it that kept it from feeling so…icky.
Katy: I forgot I said that in my review.
David: Am I making that up?
Katy: No, I’ve just looked at my notes. I forget my own thoughts very quickly. I am basically a fish in a Pixar movie.
David: One place I did feel like the book got really uncomfortable was when we were Ben’s head. When he’s describing attacking his father’s new wife, and talking about the maid, etc.
Katy: I enjoyed 3 of the 4 voices. Not Benjamin.
David: I thought he was well handled, but uncomfortable to read. Was your lack of enjoyment on that level, or did you feel those portions were poorly written?
Katy: I just didn’t really understand why he was there. He wasn’t bringing much to the party and being in Lizzie’s head was far more fun. Although fun is perhaps not quite the right word…
David: Well, one part where his role is clear, and where I felt like the book dropped off into obvious exposition, was in the late chapter that takes place in 1905. He describes the trial and all the aftermath, and it’s just an obvious device for the author to tell us what happened. I get that there wasn’t probably another way for her to do that, but it felt inferior to the rest of the book. Lacked interiority, for one thing, but also was just a transparent exposition device.
Katy: I’ve just reread some bits of the book and Benjamin’s sections just jarred with me. I think it was because Lizzie, Emma and Bridget were all actually involved and on the inside of events, but he wasn’t, which made things seem a bit unbalanced. Uncle John could have served a similar purpose as a narrator, no? It was a while ago that I read it so perhaps I’m not remembering it correctly. I have also just skimmed through the last chapter and now I am going to think about the final sentence all night.
David: Yes and no. I think he’s there specifically to be an outsider. I think she shied away from using John because she wanted him to be somewhat opaque and creepy.
You just made me look at the book. Yes, that’s a great final line.
Katy: For me, it’s a real ‘what the fuck’ ending and I like those.
David: Totally. For me, my favorite character, and my favorite to be inside her head, was Bridget. I thought she was fantastic. She was the bridge between insider/outsider, and in some ways had the most to lose. When she talked about her family in Ireland, or when she lost her money, or had to leave without it, etc, it had real empathy. She’s the only one of these characters I think I would like to talk to over coffee or a drink. She and Emma were the only really sympathetic characters.
Lizzie was something of a brat. I guess that’s one way she was different from Merrikat. The latter was likable and sympathetic. Lizzie was a selfish pain in the ass with her sister.
Katy: I do enjoy a proper unsympathetic character though. It’s Lizzie that stood out to me from the start; her freezing reaction to her father’s death right at the beginning was brilliant. And it made the central mystery so compelling to me.
David: Oh, she’s well done, for sure. But I do want Someone I can rest with, someone I can feel like my proxy in the book who I can sympathize with. Bridget filled that role.
Katy: Probably this makes you a more well-balanced person than me. I just like psychopaths, apparently.
David: Did you not like Bridget?
Katy: I did, and Emma too. But, as with all books that flit between different narrators, I found myself yearning to get back to one of them and it was Lizzie. Maybe because hers was the first voice we hear in the book so it’s what settled me into the narrative. Settled, again, is the wrong word. She was just the most interesting to me. But I did empathise with Bridget’s predicament; as you point out, the other women are relatively insulated by wealth and status, while she’s vulnerable in lots of ways.
David: That makes sense. I think one of my hang-ups with Lizzie—and I should say that I did like her, just not as much as Bridget and Emma—is that I don’t generally like unreliable narrators, and she was the only one.
Katy: See, there’s where we differ. We English teachers LOVE unreliable narrators. They are our lifeblood. Our reason for living.
David: That’s just so you get to explain unreliable narrators to awed high schoolers though. I jest.
Katy: It is kind of true. Kids hate them though. “Miss, why can’t books just be true?” Umm, because that’s not how fiction works. My last question is about genre. I don’t read much crime fiction, if any. Do you? I am guessing the ambiguous resolution makes this less than representative of the genre, but having read this I feel like I’d be interested in more historical crime, true or otherwise.
David: I don’t read much crime fiction. What I do read is this sort of literary crime fiction. I would say they run the gamut, but often do leave some ambiguity or lack of resolution.
Did you ever read Daphne du Maurier? She was one of my first literary loves as a teenager, and fit this kind of literary thriller genre.
Katy: I love Du Maurier. She’s one of those writers all female English teachers like, in my experience, along with Atwood and Plath. Let’s discuss Du Maurier some time.
David: Let’s. Two other quick notes on the book: Emma’s lost engagement was heartbreaking. And early on, Schmidt kept doing this word repetition thing that she ended up largely abandoning later. Did you notice that?
Katy: I do not recall making this observation. Like what?
David: Just within the first few pages, she uses “ticked ticked” multiple times, and also “gallop gallop,” “tacky tacky,” “sip sip,” “turn it turn it.” There might be more. But it’s not a device that continues on for most of the novel.
Katy: Oh wait, I remember this now. I saw it as an indicator of Lizzie’s weirdly childish sensibility but then didn’t notice it disappear. Part of some kind of psychotic break in the aftermath of the murders? I love diagnosing fictional entities with terms I don’t entirely understand.
David: Yeah, that’s probably it, but it’s not like she becomes more mature or stable or rational later on, so why doesn’t it continue?
Katy: True. I do not have an answer for this.
David: I don’t accept that.
Katy: Well this is awkward.
David: We should talk briefly about pears.
Katy: I don’t like them.
David: They’re used and referenced waaaaayyy too much to not mean something.
And there’s one on the cover. I like pear sauce with a bit of ginger, served hot. But they’re not my favorite fruit, no.
Katy: Pears take a million years to be ready to eat and then 15 minutes later they’re all soggy and gross. Perhaps this is relevant?
David: Honestly, it might be. The only thing I know about pears is how long they take to grow and mature. Perhaps it’s to show this is an old family, that these problems have been going on a long time, etc?
Katy: Apparently pears are mentioned 49 times. That does seem like a lot. I like your analysis.
David: They were mentioned at points where it seemed excessive, even. Too often to just be establishing scene or setting.
Katy: Maybe Sarah Schmidt just really likes pears.