A fictional reimagining of real-life murders so infamous they earned its alleged perpetrator her own playground rhyme and ax-wielders everywhere a catchy chopping song, even if the killer’s guilt was never firmly established.
On Aug. 4, 1892, in Fall River, Massachusetts, Andrew Borden and his second wife, Abby, were found butchered in their home, the weapon thought to be an ax, though police never found it. In a dazzling debut novel that is as unsettling as the summer heat that permeates the crime scene, Schmidt alternates the first-person narration among sisters Lizzie and Emma Borden; Bridget, the family's maid; and a mysterious man named Benjamin, whose role doesn't come into focus so much as congeal like drying blood. Tempestuous Lizzie still lives at home with her father and stepmother, whom she calls “Mrs. Borden”; their relationship is strained at best. Older sister Emma, much to Lizzie’s dismay, has left Fall River to stay with a friend for a while; the symbiotic relationship between the sisters and their teetering feelings of intense love and loathing fuel much of the novel’s emotional fire. Bridget, who sees everything and is seething that Mrs. Borden recently confiscated her savings, is eager to get out of the house—and Schmidt creates such a palpable sense of unease that the reader is, too. Benjamin, a passing acquaintance of the girls’ uncle, burns with rage; Schmidt is careful not to lay blame for the murders directly at his feet, though his presence is vital. It’s a gamble to focus almost entirely on the day leading up to the murders and the actual day of the crime rather than widening the scope to include Lizzie’s well-known trial and eventual acquittal, but it's one that pays off for Schmidt, creating an unusually intimate portrait.
There are books about murder and there are books about imploding families; this is the rare novel that seamlessly weaves the two together, asking as many questions as it answers.