(New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017)
This debut novel from Sarah Schmidt takes as its subject the infamous Borden murders, still theorized and discussed more than a hundred years later, perhaps best known by the nefarious children’s rhyme assuming daughter Lizzie’s guilt: “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks, When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.”
What makes the novel intriguing is the shifting of perspectives between Lizzie, sister Emma, maid Bridget, and n’er-do-well Benjamin, a man the Borden sisters’ uncle has hired to do something nasty to Mr. Borden in order to get him to reconsider how he’s treating his daughters and how he’s spending his money.
The sisters are ten years apart at thirty-two and forty-two, and each has their own grievances with their father and stepmother. Older sister Emma feels cramped and overwhelmed by the demands of younger Lizzie; “there had been years of making nests for Lizzie. I had grown tired of it but there I was.” She asserts that their father is “always putting Lizzie first, always taking her side, never asking my opinion.” But Emma also observes that Lizzie hates both parents, something she knows because “there we were, me and my sister, our bodies inseparable. There is nothing that escapes blood.”
It seems as if every character in the book has a reason to want Mr. and Mrs. Borden dead, whether it is the scheming Lizzie, Bridget the maid whose savings Mrs. Borden has taken, Benjamin the hired man, John the uncle, or even Emma the disgruntled sister. Yet Emma was away visiting friends in another town when the murders take place, putting her in the clear. It’s Lizzie who finds Mr. Borden and who insists that Mrs. Borden had gone out that morning to visit the sick, delaying the finding of her body upstairs. What does Lizzie know and what has she done? The book perambulates around these questions, taking us deep inside the minds of the other characters but always swirling around these two mysteries.
Emma wonders, “How quickly does the body forget its history?” and readers must wonder how quickly could Lizzie have put the murders out of her head if she was responsible for them. In the aftermath, she seems in shock; “a fog settled in my mind. I had the feeling of wanting to stroke Father’s beard and face until he looked like the past.” And, “inside my head a butcher pounded all sense out of my ears and onto the dining room table.” Prior to the murders, Lizzie went on a voyage to Europe and of that time she fondly reflects, “Nobody knew me, didn’t expect anything from me. I wanted to stay like that forever.” This desire to stay forever in a place without expectations mirrors how Lizzie acts after the murders: not wanting to respond to police inquiries and wishing she were another version of herself, one who would answer only to herself.
Of all of the characters, Emma’s grief seems the most genuine and uncomplicated –and yet even Emma seems to be wondering if her sister has done the unthinkable. “Every adult that had ever held me as a baby was dead and no one would ever carry me again. I looked at my sister, looked at blood. That grief inside the heart.” This seems to suggest a grief beyond the death of her parents, a grief at suspecting who is responsible for the murders, perhaps her own flesh and blood: this is a suspicion that Emma does not want to process or confront, yet causes her heartache.
Amidst the aftermath of the murders, Emma ponders her complicated feelings for her younger sister, admitting to herself that “there have been times when Lizzie was away from home that I nursed absence” but also acknowledging “always two ways of feeling: relief and loneliness.”
In response, Lizzie ponders some viscerally disturbing punishments for her sister:
Emma’s hideous desire for answers made my heart beat faster. She made my teeth want to sink into her flesh and eat her out of my life, made me want to swarm her mind and sort through all the thoughts she had of me, that I was being too stubborn, I was being too secretive, I was being bad, I was, I was.
This is a book that strongly suggests Lizzie was responsible for the deaths, but spends most of its time exploring the web of people around the murdered parents, rather than the murder itself. “I’m waiting for the best moment to be my true self,” Lizzie thinks, “Everything will be different then, you’ll see.” In this telling of the true crime story, nearly everyone has something to hide about their true self, regardless of who committed the murders. And in that fact, there is a lesson for all of us about the weight of lies, omissions and conflicting desires under one roof in the aftermath of tragedy.
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Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien writes and edits in New York. Her nonfiction on faith, depression and the imagination from the Bellevue Literary Review was a notable selection in Best American Essays 2011. She has contributed to America: The National Catholic Review, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Real Pants, The Rumpus, and Words Without Borders: Dispatches, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she has taught writing in the United States and Europe. Find more from her at her website or @CMMOB on Twitter.