On 4 August 1892, a horrifying murder takes place in the little town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby are found hacked to death at home. Andrew’s eldest daughter Emma is away, staying with a friend; his younger daughter Lizzie, who finds his body, is unbalanced with shock. No one seems to have heard anything. As the blood seeps into the floors and fabrics of the Borden household, the questions begin; but there is more simmering beneath the surface of this strange family than anyone can hope to comprehend. In this unsettling, claustrophobic novel, Sarah Schmidt evokes the miasma of jealousy, resentment, loneliness and mental instability that result in the shocking events of that August afternoon.
I knew nothing about the Borden case before reading this novel, except for the horrid children’s rhyme that somehow wormed its way into my mind when I was small: ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one‘. But did she? This book introduces us to a Lizzie who certainly knows how to hate: she is an overgrown child, a woman who at thirty-two still has the foot-stamping, tantrum-prone emotional responses of a little girl. Spoiled in her childhood by her father, used to getting her own way, and heavily dependent on her big sister Emma, Lizzie has never had to be independent. Indeed, her father has hot-housed both her and Emma, his protection snowballing into something more like suffocation. As young women, their freedoms are curtailed and their chances for escape – as Emma knows only too well – virtually non-existent. Cramped within this house with their parsimonious, bitter father and their lonely stepmother, these two women have never been permitted to grow beyond the bounds of their chrysalises.
Emma itches to leave. At forty-one, she has already wasted the best years of her life playing mother to her demanding, selfish and erratic younger sister. With a love affair sabotaged by Lizzie’s jealousy, and Fall River offering her only dead ends, Emma dreams of getting away to pursue her dreams of being an artist. A visit to her friend Helen offers the perfect opportunity for some fresh air. But, with Emma away, Lizzie is left alone, prone to emotional outbursts and with no one to keep her grounded. Bridget, too, longs to get away from this family, with their thick fog of unspoken hatreds. All she wants is to get home to Ireland, using the money she’s carefully scrounged and saved; but she doesn’t seem able to escape this house, where thrift forces her to serve up reboiled bad mutton, where she can never do anything right, and where her mistress Abby Borden swerves between censure and desperate affection. And, into this fermenting atmosphere comes Uncle John, the sister of Emma’s and Lizzie’s dead mother, with his own ideas about how to improve the lot of his two overlooked nieces.
As the summer heat thickens, this unhappy family’s fate is about to be sealed in the most irretrievable way. Afterwards, no one will be quite sure what happened. Schmidt teases out the patchwork of events on the days around the murder, but uses a very light touch: it’s up to us, the reader, to put them together and see what patterns we find. The flow of the story is thick and distorted, almost like that stultifying summer weather – this doesn’t signal bad writing, but simply emphasises the looming ‘wrongness’ of this strange household. This slow pace means that occasional very gory scenes have a neutered impact: it’s like looking through old glass, or hearing through earmuffs. That’s especially the case when we see things through childlike, manipulative, mentally-fragile Lizzie’s eyes – for several characters take it in turns to narrate.
This is certainly a very odd book. It succeeds in creating a choking, stifling atmosphere and so makes an impression even if its eerie urban horror didn’t quite click with me. Schmidt’s passion for the subject (she spent some time staying at the Borden house in Fall River) comes through very clearly. She also has sympathy for her disturbed, lonely characters even while she shows them gradually fragmenting under the pressure of their isolated lives. But I wasn’t sure how much I really cared about them. Nor was I completely convinced by the addition of a (presumably) fictional character who holds the family’s fate in his hands. Did he need to be there at all? What did others think? And what conclusions did you draw about the identity of the murderer? Do you feel, as I did, that Schmidt pushes us pretty strongly towards a certain conclusion?