Schmidt is less interested in contriving a new version of what 'really' happened on that fateful morning in 1892 than in plunging the reader into a claustrophobic nexus of family resentments and frustrations, probing obsessively at the faultline between love and hate ... The blurring of voices and perceptions, particularly between Lizzie and Benjamin, and obsessive repetition of words and symbols only add to the irresistible momentum and fevered intensity of the book: part fairytale, part psychodrama ... At the same time, much backstory is cleverly withheld: there are hints at Lizzie’s instability, but we bring our own assumptions to her character ... We get only glimpses into the particular hell of the Borden household; the fact that we can fill in the blanks from our own darkest places draws us closer, more uncomfortably, in. Schmidt’s unusual combination of narrative suppression and splurge makes for a surprising, nastily effective debut.
Schmidt paints a picture of a house in crisis, stroke by violent stroke ... Her eerie voice makes for intense, dizzying reading, conveying the corrupt atmosphere of the house, the suffocating sense of wrongness every character seems to feel under the skin ... Schmidt inhabits each of her narrators with great skill, channeling their anxieties, their viciousness, with what comes across as (frighteningly) intuitive ease. Everything about Schmidt’s novel is hauntingly, beautifully off. It’s a creepy and penetrating work, even for a book about Lizzie Borden.
The permeability or porousness of the human body is stressed throughout the novel. There are repeated references to blood and bleeding, to smells of rot and urine, to self-cannibalization ... The Borden house is, in short, a house of horror, as in its way is Lizzie Borden’s psyche. The dynamic interplay of these ideas and images works wonderfully in the first half of the novel, and goes far to create an atmosphere of truly grisly unwholesomeness. Schmidt convincingly establishes the conditions in which that most unnatural of acts could occur, the apparent murder by a child of her parents ... The narrative structure of See What I Have Done squanders that tension. There are too many voices and shifts in the time scheme as the novel moves into its final hundred pages. The effect is to undermine the dynamic previously established, both in the Borden household and in Lizzie’s sickening mind ... Sarah Schmidt has created a lurid and original work of horror. It’s a pity that some of its force has been dissipated by its disorganized and overlong second half. As a result, the novel lacks the ever-tightening narrative torque that might more effectively have delivered the lovely shocker on the last page.
[Schmidt] undoubtedly faced two distinct challenges: first, creating an atmosphere in which, granting the family’s gentility, the crimes become believable; and second, leaving the question of “whodunit” teasingly open as long as possible. She has met both challenges splendidly ... It’s a gripping and still puzzling story, and Ms. Schmidt contrives to make her version persuasive. In some respects the novel is over-written. Blood jumps. Words are snarled or spat out. When Lizzie eats cake, she says that she lets 'the deliciousness form soft pyramids in my cheeks.' Ms. Schmidt’s intelligent treatment of the story makes such strained writing feel irritatingly superfluous. That said, See What I Have Done is a credible imagining of a bizarre episode. It also offers a convincing explanation of why, a dozen years after the murders, Emma suddenly left the house that she and Lizzie had bought and lived in together since the trial and never spoke to her again.
Plausibility will not likely concern readers unfamiliar with details of the case (or the mores of Victorian New England) and even those who are can appreciate the atmosphere of brooding dread and lurking neurosis that Schmidt creates ... The characters’ memories and grievances conjure up decades but restricting the physical action to two days (with a single late-chapter exception) conveys a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment appropriate to her tale of seething jealousies and familial love and hate inextricably intertwined ... Whodunit is not really the point here, and the trouble with this well-crafted but surprisingly unengaging novel is that it’s not clear what alternative point Schmidt might have in mind ... The Borden murders are among a number of crimes whose particulars are so logistically complicated and psychologically suggestive that any fictional version tends to pale in comparison, except when it’s utterly bizarre. See What I Have Done can be read with some enjoyment but is neither weird enough nor profound enough to rival the fascinations of the real-life story.
Sarah Schmidt's debut novel is a terrifically dread-inducing, claustrophobic, nightmarish immersion in a fictional version of one of the most famous crimes in American history ... Schmidt turns those facts about the case into a tense psychological study of family dysfunction, painted with a vividness bordering on the hallucinogenic. The reader is drawn into a house that feels as if it is slowly strangling its inhabitants ... Schmidt skillfully manages the challenge of writing about a historical murder case by introducing elements that make us doubt what we think we know ... I don't know whether many authors invite such haunting by their characters, but in Schmidt's case it led to a gripping and accomplished novel. Readers of See What I Have Done may feel haunted by Lizzie Borden, too.
The case became an obsession, and remained so for the next eleven years as Schmidt wrote See What I Have Done, her spectacular debut novel ... The critically-acclaimed thriller is a Gothic retelling of the grisly 1892 murders of Lizzie’s father and stepmother, in Fall River, Mass., a crime for which Lizzie was famously tried and acquitted ...narration weaves together Lizzie’s own voice with that of her older sister, Emma, the Irish housemaid, Bridget, and a mysterious stranger, Benjamin ...the real strength of the novel lies not in the richness of its research, but in the family dynamics of dependence and resentment it so evocatively details ... But it’s a testament to Schmidt’s commitment that her version of this well-trodden tale proves so dark, so disturbing, so difficult to shake. Perhaps no surprise, then, that one of the book’s most chilling moments actually occurs in its acknowledgments.
See is the product of 11 years of that obsession, and it’s a prickly, unsettling wonder: a story so tactile and feverishly surreal it feels like a sort of reverse haunting ... The table of misery is set, but is there motivation enough for murder? It would spoil Schmidt’s literary game to say too much. What she does do, in dense, swooning paragraphs, is build an indelible mood ... Schmidt’s style has its quirks. She drops definite articles, repeats phrases like incantations, and has a habit of turning unlikely nouns (termite, critter) into verbs. The vast gaps in her characters’ education and experience somehow still allow them to share the same distinctive voice. But her protagonist comes more fully alive than almost any character in recent memory, and the final pages are a wild, mind-bending revelation.
The elegant and evocative writing style, combined with a mesmerizing, subtly menacing thrum of psychological suspense, heralds the arrival of a major new talent ... Nail-biting horror mixes with a quiet, unforgettable power to create a novel readers will stay up all night finishing.
See What I Have Done is a barn-burning, fever-ridden first novel. It makes blistering reading out of first-rate historical fiction, which must walk the tightrope of established facts while fashioning a story anew. Hilary Mantel, in her brilliant re-creation of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, may be the best practitioner alive, but this book announces Schmidt as a new sister in the craft ... The macabre surges, and Schmidt salts her book with repetition, casting an incantatory spell. The writing is vivid to the point of hallucination.
Schmidt’s timeline can be confusing; for most of the book, two characters are recounting the day before the murder, while two others are describing the day of the murder itself. In addition, all four characters have frequent flashbacks meant to illuminate their characters, making it seem as though the book is taking place at many different times simultaneously. This suits Lizzie’s disjointed chapters, and perhaps Emma’s, since her past is so intertwined with Lizzie’s. For Bridget and Benjamin, however, the reminiscences often serve as distractions rather than clarifications. Despite these occasional diversions, the author does a superb job of conjuring up the circumstances surrounding Mr. and Mrs. Borden’s murders. Her prose mimics trains of thought without rambling, and by allowing the characters to tell their own stories, she is able to avoid some of the exposition necessitated by a third-party narrator. Schmidt’s slow burn — the buildup of the day before and the day of the murders — pays off in a big way.
Schmidt creates a world in which nearly every character seems driven to the brink of homicidal madness by the oppressive proximity of the others ... The intention behind illuminating these cross-cutting resentments must have been to create a cat's cradle of suspense, in which any character might be the one to snap. But something like the opposite effect seems to happen on the page. By making almost every character seem capable of ax murder — and almost every character seem at least a little bit worthy of it — the novel blunts the singularity and mystery of the event itself. Instead of drawing its energy from the question How could this have happened?, the novel seems to revolve around the premise How could it not have? ... That said, Schmidt is undeniably a fine writer. She has a wonderful ear for the linguistic tics of inner monologues; Lizzie's is cut with a singsongy echolalia that's simultaneously true-feeling and extremely strange. Bridget's voice is a spirited and affecting breath of fresh air.
...filled with more than its fair share of nastiness and terror, it also occasionally reveals moments of bruised tenderness and pitiful insight ... Schmidt does an excellent job of finding a unique voice for each viewpoint character and of structuring the narrative so that crucial scenes can be replayed and re-imagined ... Powerful, eerie and insightful, See What I Have Done sheds a different light on what once seemed an open-and-shut case.
It’s a gamble to focus almost entirely on the day leading up to the murders and the actual day of the crime rather than widening the scope to include Lizzie’s well-known trial and eventual acquittal, but it's one that pays off for Schmidt, creating an unusually intimate portrait. There are books about murder and there are books about imploding families; this is the rare novel that seamlessly weaves the two together, asking as many questions as it answers.
Schmidt’s unforgettable debut brings a legendary American crime to eerie new life ... Equally compelling as a whodunit, 'whydunit,' and historical novel, the book honors known facts yet fearlessly claims its own striking vision. Even before the murders, the Bordens’ cruel, claustrophobic lives are not easy to visit, but from them Schmidt has crafted a profoundly vivid and convincing fictional world.