Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Oh, Sarah Schmidt can write!
What a strange strange thing to start a review with! But there is writing and there is writing and Sarah Schmidt can write! Not only can she create a plot and move her characters from the beginning through the middle and to the end, but her writing creates voice and tone and atmosphere very powerfully. It is sensual and lyrical, sparse and precise and synaesthetic and horrifying.
But, perhaps, I am rushing things.
Schmidt’s novel is set in the real historical world of Fall River, Massachusetts on and around Thursday August 4th 1892 when Lizzie Borden’s father Andrew and step-mother Abby were brutally murdered.
Being a Brit, I had never heard of this case – although the somewhat macabre skipping song chant rings vague bells – and have come to it only through the novel. I am given to understand that it became something of a scandal: Lizzie Borden was arrested, charged and acquitted of the murders and a range of books, documentaries and films have been made trying to uncover the ‘truth’ – including what sounds like a somewhat scurrilous and melodramatic attempt to create a lesbian relationship between Lizzie and the maid, Bridget.
Schmidt is a novelist not an investigative reporter, however, and this is no attempt to uncover the truth and, in fact some of the historical details are elided for narrative economy as Schmidt shrinks a couple of months of history into a few days of story. At no point do we “see” the murder take place, nor does anyone confess. What we get instead is an initially slightly disconcertingly non-linear account of the events leading up to the murder and after it from four different first-person point of view characters: the infamous Lizzie Borden, her elder sister Emma – is her alibi of being away from Falls River on the day a little too convenient? – the maid Bridget and the somewhat psychotic or sociopathic outsider from the family, Benjamin.
Lizzie and Emma both begin their narratives on the fateful day of the murders, the very moment of the murders, and drive the story onwards whilst, in a stream of consciousness, recalling and being reminded of their pasts; Bridget and Benjamin both start their accounts a few days before the murders and lead up to them. Of the four characters, Benjamin is significantly the weakest. Not as a character – I’d have liked to have heard more about him and his story, actually – but as a part of the narrative: a chance meeting with John, Lizzie and Emma’s maternal uncle, introduces him to the Borden world and he felt terribly shoe-horned in. Potentially a suspect. Potentially a witness. Potentially an outside voice, albeit one with his own unreliability.
And indeed, not one of these narrators is reliable. Lizzie seems infantilised, dependent, manipulative with no more than a faint grasp on reality; Emma seems more capable but jealous and bitter; Bridget, likewise. All four characters’ voices were distinctive, compelling and credible.
And all four describe the same heated – literally and metaphorically – appalling, claustrophobic, toxic environment within the Borden household. Love turned to possessiveness, love soured and poisoned like the perpetual mutton stew: too often we hear the visceral noises and textures of the most intimate parts of the characters. Tongues, lips, thighs. And too often characters wanted not simply to be with but to become one with each other:
Dr Bowen handed me a cold, wet washcloth. ‘For her.’ His voice a slow train. I placed it on Lizzie’s forehead, applied pressure. Lizzie looked small. In that moment I wanted to carry her inside me, keep her safe and loved, the way I had promised Mother. Everyone stared at Lizzie with pathological sympathy, a curiosity. She kept her eyes on me, the way she used to after Mother died. I kissed her. Somewhere behind heated skin, the birth of tears.
I was surrounded by faces, identical horrors, and everything seemed smaller. Somewhere in the house there was a strange wailing sound, the way blood might sound as it rushed out of the body. I winced, glanced towards the sitting room, to Father and, beyond that, Abby, and prayed that nobody was going to make me walk through those rooms. I stared at my wrists; sun lines danced over veins, and for a moment I was back in the field at Fairhaven, pencil in hand, back on my own. I could hear Lizzie’s tongue swirl inside her mouth and I pulled my sleeve over my wrist and wiped my sister’s forehead.
Food is also a recurrent motif throughout the novel: the mutton stew itself which seemed to have been heated and re-heated and may have been the cause of the family’s stomach upsets and vomiting – when tasted by Benjamin he rejects it as tasting of “marzipan” and my inner hybrid of Mrs Beeton and Miss Marple link marzipan to almonds and almonds to cyanide. We also see and taste pears, oranges, honeycakes.
‘I’m mighty ravenous,’ Uncle said.
Stale bread, butter, old mutton broth. Rotting fruit. Fresh milk, apple-spiced cake. Uncle cut into the bread, spread butter thick, the way you do when you know there is no one there to stop you. Emma watched him and sipped her tea. I took some cake and broke chunks, let the deliciousness form soft pyramids in my cheeks. Sugar sang.
‘Mighty delicious, Emma,’ Uncle said.
It is a powerfully written book and quite rightly lauded and longlisted for the Women’s Prize For Fiction.
Publisher: Tinder Press
Date: 2 May 2017