Rating – 4 stars
Date Finished – July 11, 2017
56/120 in 2017
Release Date – August 1, 2017
I’ve long been fascinated by our fascination with gruesome murders – does that make sense? When I hear about a horrific crime, I feel that urge to know every tiny detail, but then I immediately feel totally grossed out at my own weird obsession. I’ve long wondered why we are so interested in the crime scene photos, the witness testimonies, the nitty-gritty details of murder and violence. Is it an American thing? Is it just a human thing? Does it make us feel better to learn everything about the victims so that we can prove to ourselves that nothing so random, so terrifying, could happen to us?
I haven’t ever read much about Lizzie Borden and the murders of her father and stepmother – I knew the general outline, but not much detail. Schmidt sticks to the known facts of the case, but expands the story into a richly told, disturbing tale.
Told from alternating perspectives (most alarmingly through Lizze’s eyes), the action mostly takes place in the days leading up to and following the murder of Abby and Andrew Borden. With the inclusion of eerie details (the pears!), and some major fictionalized elements, Schmidt tells a compelling story that kept me engaged to the end. Her use of language is striking, and it ranges from very structured to disjointed and eerily repetitive, especially in Lizzie’s chapters. Her repeated use of parallel phrases (pigeon feet tacky-tacked across the roof,” “teeth on teeth sound”) is especially creepy, as it seems to echo the “chunk – chunk” sound of an ax.
I think it’s the tiny details that have been lost to history and reimagined in this novel that make it so deeply affecting. The pear tree in the backyard of the Borden home provides the striking imagery of “soft flesh,” that is repeated many times. There is near constant description of teeth – being removed, tearing food, chattering, etc. It is these tiny details that make the violence of the crime feel so intrusive; we know the shapes and movements of these people – they sweat, vomit, and take up space with abandon until they are brutally killed – an act made all the more human by how intimately we know their bodies.
Schmidt has drawn this world for us in too much detail, and I couldn’t look away. One character (the only fully fictional one), obsessively follows the trial and news coverage following the murders. In his words, “the jurors would poke their old fingers into everything, pretend they were investigating facts when really they wanted to touch the spaces dead people had been.”
And isn’t that what we’re doing here? Why do stories like this fascinate us so deeply? Why do we want to touch the spaces dead people have been? Regardless of the reason, this is a great way to scratch that itch in a fully immersive reading experience.
Thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for an advance copy of this novel!