Sarah Schmidt’s approach is just as fictional, as she re-imagines the unsolved murder. Skipping between characters Schmidt takes us into the very thought processes of Lizzie, her sister Emma, their housemaid Bridget, uncle John and a mysterious stranger named Benjamin. That last character is totally made up, but all the rest were real.
The story Schmidt has created is just as made-up, but the meticulous way she lays out the story through the eyes of the various characters makes it feel very, very real.
It is equal parts disturbing and commonplace and gory. Written in a very pragmatically descriptive way with clinical descriptions of Sarah’s cleaning routine or Emma’s ruminations on missing out on her own life, it is nonetheless eerie too.
Despite the very icky descriptions of how the Bordens were killed, the book is an engrossing read. It is a beautifully crafted piece of fiction that questions through all the characters the concepts of female agency and familial interdependence. It’s not so much that Schmidt ignores the historical facts, as that she holds up the people and really looks at just how much power they had over their own lives. Did Lizzie kill her parents because of the stifling constraints of Victorian mores on a single woman living her parents’ home? Was she acquitted because the jury of men simply could not conceive of a woman murdering her own parents?
Schmidt paints a picture of people living in discomforting proximity, dependent on each other in a weird sort of way. This is the dark side to Victorian literature - there’s jealousy, anxiety, irritation and cloying co-dependancy.
This retelling goes much further than Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea ever did with mad Bertha in the attic, in extrapolating a possible intention for Lizzie Borden. It also tells us a whole lot more about our contemporary relationship with feminist revisiting of old events than it does about the event itself. And, while Schmidt never comes down on way or another in pronouncing Lizzie’s guilt or innocence, the book is worth a read because it never reduces her to just those two sides of a coin but makes her as complex, and yes strange and not exactly nice, as a woman can be.