I’ve just finished this book and I have to say that the overwhelming feeling is that I loved it, that I was excited about it and that the whole thing is alive inside my head! I know that there were parts that irritated me but on the whole I thought it was tremendous and the negative feelings I have about it also sit with my positive feelings.
The books is a fictional account based on the factual events of the 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts. I had heard of the murders before because I have visited Massachusetts a few times and Lizzie Borden, the daughter, is the subject of a very well known rhyme relating to the incident.
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Lizzie was tried for the murders and famously acquitted despite numerous pieces of evidence suggesting she was culpable. No other suspect was ever declared and Lizzie lived out the rest of her life in Fall River, dying in her old age.
Today the Borden house, the scene of the crime, remains frozen in time and serves as a B&B where you can stay in Lizzie’s room and sit on a replica of the sofa that her father was hacked to death on. Importantly there is a gift shop where you can buy bobble head Lizzie’s.
So, to the book. This is the authors’ debut novel and it transpires that she found a pamphlet in a second hand shop about the murders some years ago. She was interested but not that interested but then started dreaming about Lizzie, Lizzie wanted to tell her something about her father. Eventually the author found herself staying overnight in Lizzie’s room as she felt pushed on a journey to tell this tale.
There are four narrators, Lizzie herself, her sister Emma, their Irish maid Bridget and a fictional character called Benjamin who is employed by the girls Uncle to have a “word” with Andrew, their father. The story starts and ends with the murders and in-between the time line chops around pretty confusingly though each characters chapter is highlighted with their name and the date.
The author successfully describes the life I think, the monotony, the heat, the arguments. There are several themes that continue to be repeated, like the ticking clock, but these serve to illustrate the repetition of life I think. And Lizzie and Emma are not young girls yet they still live at home with their father and his second wife. Lizzie is much younger than Emma and is portrayed as very child like despite her age. But that is wholly believable in light of her being the youngest child and having been preceded by a girl, Alice who died at 2. The girls’ mother died when Lizzie herself was 2 and this would have seen her babied even more than usual I think. So the babyish tone of her at times is wholly believable. Poor Emma is all I have to say. She was tasked by her mother when she died to look after Lizzie and this is thrown at her all the time, much as at times she clearly, and rather sensibly, hates Lizzie.
The characters of Bridget and Benjamin are added to give continuity to the time line. A key event in the lead up to the murders sees Andrew Borden chop off the heads of Lizzie’s “pet” feral pigeons that she keeps in the barn. All the occupants of the house, except Lizzie, have been quite ill over the preceding days (likely because Lizzie was poisoning them and not eating the food herself) and Andrew Borden thinks the illness is linked to the vermin so chops off their heads. Surely an important event in terms of motive and means? Benjamin, hiding in the barn, is able to provide us with detail of both the event of the heads being chopped off and the moment that Lizzie discovers that it has happened, and how proximate this is to the murders.
Benjamin also provides a chapter some years hence where he is able to review newspaper coverage of the trial of Lizzie very succinctly without the story actually touching on the actual events. Lizzie and Emma’s timeline in the novel doesn’t even reach her arrest.
I thought the book was fabulous. I have read other reviews where people dismiss the need for Benjamin – I disagree, where people suggest a more factual account was required rather than this stylised one – erm, this is a novel not a true crime book, and where people criticise the repetition – did get a bit repetitive towards the end but actually it needed to be, we didn’t hear that clock tick as much as they did!
And the cherry on the cake of the book was the authors note at the back where she describes her journey to writing the novel including a description of her stay at the b&b alongside some unsuspecting retiring teachers who had tasked their satnav with finding them a place to stay and were wholly unaware, until the author gleefully told them, that they were staying in the room where Abby was murdered. LOLs.
This book as been long listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and I wish it the best of luck though it is up against Eleanor Oliphant which seems to have taken the world by storm.
I highly recommend See What I Have Done particularly if you like a crime thriller or true crime. Let me know what you think!