When I Hit You


Regardless of your bookish tastes, when a novel carries a title like this it slaps you around the face, hard. Whether this slap will then make you sit up and listen and have a read is another matter. I had personally been orbiting this Womens Prize  nominee for a while but, after a few little nudges in the right direction from various fellow bloggers, decided to take the plunge on a topic which is decidedly not (don’t judge me, I like my nicey nice escapism) my cup of tea. Problematically it took me almost three weeks to finish, purely through life getting in the way. Since this is a novel that begs to be read in, at most, a couple of sittings, this really wasn’t ideal. As a result I’m left wondering whether I really gave it a fair chance…

Our unnamed narrator is an outwardly ordinary, independent young woman; a writer, student and political novice who falls for a university lecturer and Marxist revolutionary who, initially attractive with his sharp intellect and ideological passions, once in the bubble of the marital home proves himself to be an angry, paranoid and violent man. She is all of us. She is not impoverished, friendless, uneducated or any of the stereotypes we may associate with victims of domestic abuse, associations that are deeply flawed when placed under scrutiny. The few words of her new local dialect she knows serve to isolate her in her new domestic role, a role where her cooking becomes a desperate tool to appease the man who eventually cuts off her contact with the outside world – mobile phone, social media accounts – beats her with her laptop cable (amongst other implements) and, eventually, amongst the horrific psychological abuse, rapes her.

I really don’t know what my expectations were of this book, was I, not being one to ordinarily go out of my comfort zone, looking for something to affect me more than it did? For such a hard-hitting topic and a book with some truly harrowing scenes (the graphic imagining of what the rapes are doing to her body sticks particularly in the mind) I was left feeling somewhat distant from the narrator… isolated. Is this intentional or does it highlight some lack of empathy or experience in me? I expected to be blown away, I wanted to be blown away  but was instead left feeling rather flat. A feeling made all the more guilty by the fact that the novel is based on the author’s own personal experience.

Regardless of my own feelings and lack of engagement, this book is nevertheless incredibly important. Important because we experience this horror from the point of view of a woman we can relate to, who has, thankfully, not been silenced. A woman who was asked, bafflingly, by an audience at a feminist publishing house (no less), how she allowed her husband to abuse her. As much as we might condemn such an outwardly ignorant attitude, this novel forces us to confront our own ignorance and assumptions about the victims of domestic violence. With the what ifs and why didn’t shes crowding our mind despite ourselves, we are made to realise that this could, frighteningly, be one of us, and so much more easily than we might think.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt


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!