See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

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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!

 

 

The Circle – Dave Eggers

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Despite me taking a little mini break when baby arrived, with a little help from a good friend the Manchester Book Club is, thankfully, still going strong. 6 years this spring!!

Although it may have something to do with my waning concentration span, last years’ books felt like a bit of a mediocre bunch. Even Elena Ferrante’s much lauded My Brilliant Friend – that I was so, so, excited to read – was met with sighs and eye rolls, including by yours truly. Though I did finally read A Clockwork Orange….one for the bucket list I suppose.

I always see our first book of the year as perhaps, in some fatalistic way, setting the tone for the next 12 months. Dave Eggers’ The Circle, is, by 2018 standards, hardly going to blow anyone’s mind with it’s tale of a Google-style multinational/all-powerful corporation that has the monopoly over most of the world’s digital information and major technological advances. However, although the premise might sound fairly unoriginal, it’s really important to think about how much our digital world has actually changed in the 5 years since this book was published and therefore how particularly relevant this story is to us today.

The novel follows our marginally dull, girl-next-door-type Mae Holland as she bagsies a job at the most sought after company in the world; the Circle. All is innocent enough at first, as she starts in a fairly lowly customer service role, albeit working in lovely surroundings with all the bells and whistles of the latest technology. Things however, soon turn sour, as her work colleagues’ California smiles start to look more and more deranged, the founders’ ethos creepier and creepier and Mae’s position more precarious as she is sucked into a world where privacy of any kind, even in your own home, is seen as a betrayal against those around you. Mae is utterly brainwashed, the Circle’s grip on society becomes greater and oh my god have I really reactivated my own social media accounts?! Eek!!

Although I know that this already won’t be a favourite of mine this year, The Circle made for a perfect book club book. Eggers shines a light on many pertinent issues; the positive and negatives sides to current technological advances being one of them. However, the spotlight is mainly focused on personal privacy and the question of how much individuals should be sharing with those around them. In a society where many people voluntarily offer up their homes/lifestyle/partners/children/jobs to scrutiny (see Instagram. I love you Instagram but you scare me sometimes), in Mae’s world this scrutiny becomes a requirement; the ability to go ‘off grid’ impossible. And the scariest thing of all? Hardly anyone questions laying themselves bare for the cameras in the grand quest for shared information, knowledge and transparency. And for those who do? Well, I won’t spoil the story for you 🙂

So far so excellent book club book. Eggers’ novel is gripping, an easy read and incredibly prescient looking at it from the other side of the frenzied whirl of social media we live in today. The major gripe here would be that sadly, in his eagerness to make all of these very valid points, plausible plotlines and proper characterisation occasionally fly out of the window, leading to raised eyebrows here and there. Mae all too readily agrees to wear a camera around her neck and chart her every move, sacrificing her personal life in the quest for transparency. Does this girl have no opinion? It also seemed slightly lazy to bung one of Mae’s college friends (and therefore surely equally young/inexperienced?) smack bang at the top of the Circle, for all of our convenient plotline needs. Perhaps I should have bothered applying for that Google CEO job when I left university after all….

Not one to scour your local bookshop for but if you see this in the library it is a quick and chilling read. Good entertainment all around.

The Girl on the Train

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After a very classic start to the year with a bit of James Baldwin, the book club were feeling really rather current in February, with the latest member in the hot seat bringing a score of ‘highly recommended’, slightly more modern reads. Despite the likelihood that this was not going to be available from the local library any time soon (true) and the lack of a paperback copy, the majority couldn’t help but pick out Paula Hawkins’ much-hyped début novel.

Continue reading “The Girl on the Train”