On 4th August 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden, a prosperous bourgeois couple living in the Fall River area of Massachusetts, were bludgeoned to death with a hatchet in their own home. Andrew Borden’s face was so severely destroyed that he was unrecognisable. The culprit? According to the police, the daughter; 32-year-old Lizzie Borden.
This brutal crime and subsequent sensational trial (which ended with Lizzie Borden’s acquittal – women just weren’t capable of such violent crimes after all) is so well-known in America, they even have a song:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
Shudder. (US readers – it isn’t a nursery rhyme or something horrendous is it? Like ‘ring a ring o’ roses??!’):
It is so hard now, with the passage of time and the no doubt questionable and inadequate investigative techniques of yor, not only to know for certain who actually committed these gruesome murders but to understand the woman who was most likely the culprit. It is for this reason, along with the sheer infamy of these crimes even today (seriously, just have a quick Google there are some absolute diehard ‘fans’/theorists out there) that Sarah Schmidt is a brave woman to take on this crime as her subject, as ripe for retelling as it inevitably is.
This was April’s choice for the Manchester Book Club and I honestly thought we were in for one of those chats where, because everyone loved it, beyond explaining why we loved it there really wouldn’t be much left to say. This wasn’t to be so. To my delight (quite frankly, because I love a good discussion) some found the oppressive, sickening atmosphere that Schmidt so deftly builds up to be a little too much to stomach. I personally thought it was genius, and so cleverly done. This novel is less about the ‘whodunnit’ (covered so many times), ‘howdunnit’ or even necessarily the ‘whodunnit’ (that is kind of left up to the reader) than the hot, sticky, sickening atmosphere of the Borden house in the height of the Massachusetts summer.
Along with the heat, the actual illness of the main characters in the house (bar, ever suspiciously, Lizzie herself) helps to exacerbate the stomach churning feeling. A pot of mutton stew sits on the stove throughout the novel, to be reheated again and again. Watching the family tuck into the meat is disgusting enough in itself… are they making themselves ill? Or have they been poisoned?
The Lizzie Borden story will always be a guessing game. Schmidt paints her as a needy, vulnerable, slightly manic character who we can perfectly place with a hatchet in her hands. But why the mania, why the murder? Mr and Mrs Borden are not the most endearing of characters, particularly Andrew Borden, who Schmidt shows to be both distant and abusive. We can only wonder at what went on behind closed doors. We are also introduced to the creepy uncle ‘John’, in real life the only ‘outsider’ known to be staying in the Borden house around the time of the murders. His relationship with his ‘girls’ is, again, painted as a little off. Is he an abuser? Or, indeed, is he capable of murder himself?
I loved this book and promptly lent it to Mummy Relish (with a warning not to read it when in the house on her own, ironically I found the creepiest bit to be the epilogue where Schmidt describes her own stay in the murder house). The only part that jarred and I felt was thrown in just for the sake of throwing up the question of Lizzie’s guilt was a random character called ‘Billy’, whom John hires to hurt/threaten Andrew Borden (he never gets the chance). There is mystery enough in the Bordens’ sad story without throwing in an extra character, and an unendearing one at that.
This is more than worthy of the Women’s Prize Longlist. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for her for next week’s shortlist!