This is Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel. Very well written, very uncomfortable reading.
‘He was still bleeding. I yelled, ‘Someone’s killed Father.’’
On 4 August 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered in their home in Fall River Massachusetts. Andrew’s daughter Lizzie, aged thirty-two and still living at home, was immediately suspected of murdering her father and stepmother.
Ms Schmidt’s debut novel fictionalises this infamous murder, and makes me wonder (yet again) who actually committed the murders. Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted, and no-one was ever convicted of the murders.
Ms Schmidt sets the scene. A claustrophobic household, where doors are kept locked. A frugal household where food is cooked and reheated so that nothing is wasted. The usual inhabitants are Andrew and his second wife Abby Borden, Andrew’s adult daughters (from his first marriage) Emma and Lizzie and the family’s Irish maid Bridget. At the time of the murders, Emma is away from home.
Four different voices tell their stories in the novel: Lizzie, Emma, Bridget and a man named Benjamin who has been hired by Lizzie and Emma’s maternal uncle to take care of a problem for him. Lizzie and Emma tell of difficulties between them. Bridget tells of a lack of trust, of frugality, of food which surely contributes to sickness, of the challenges of being the only servant in a house where she is expected to do everything. Can we trust any of these voices?
‘All the spaces between an hour, between life and death, came towards me.’
Quite a few books have been written about these murders and I’ve read some of them. What’s different about this novel is that by telling the story from a number of different perspectives, Ms Schmidt makes it possible to imagine that others had motivation (and possibly opportunity) to commit the murders. But in my reading, this novel is less about the murders than it is about the middle-class household in which such murders could occur. Behind the blank windows and walls, Ms Schmidt describes a household full of tension, and petty (and sometimes not so petty) grievances. I can feel the heat, feel squeamish over the killing of Lizzie’s pigeons, and the pots of food on the stove. I can almost smell the blood after the murders. What I can’t do, though, is get inside Lizzie’s head. I’m afraid to try.
This is not a novel for the squeamish. It invites the reader to step back in time to August 1892 and consider possibilities.