This title came to my attention when it appeared on the longlist of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It offers an interesting retelling of the famous August 4, 1892 double murders for which Lizzie Borden was tried but acquitted.
The author’s re-imagining focuses on the events of August 3 – August 6 as narrated by four first-person narrators: 32-year-old Lizzie; Emma, Lizzie’s 42-year-old sister; Bridget, the Borden family maid; and Benjamin, a man hired by John Morse, the girl’s maternal uncle, who witnesses some of the events at the Borden home.
To call the Borden household dysfunctional is almost an understatement. Abby, the girls’ stepmother and the first victim, has a rancorous relationship with her step-daughters who have never fully accepted her as a mother. Andrew, the girls’ father and the second victim, is overbearing, mean-spirited, critical, and miserly. The marriage does not seem especially happy; Lizzie mentions that “[Father and Mrs. Borden] did that from time to time, their being friendly and pleasant to one another.” Lizzie is a selfish, manipulative attention-seeker, whereas Emma resents her father’s favouritism towards Lizzie and living “with a sibling who would never give me up.” Uncle John, whom everyone seems to dislike, seems overly interested in the family money and “had a strange way with [Lizzie], all that holding and stroking.” Even Bridget is unhappy, longing to return to her family in Ireland.
The house is full of simmering resentments and frustrations. Lizzie wants to go on another European grand tour, and Emma wants a life that will “take me away from the family, from Father. . . . having to abide by what they wanted versus what I wanted.” Bridget saves her money so she can go home but Abby always manipulates her into staying; when she tells Abby her intention, Mrs. Borden’s response is telling: “’You shouldn’t be allowed to just leave!’ she bellowed, she wailed.”
At one point, Bridget says, “’This place is no good.’” And, indeed, the house itself, which is always creaking, seems to have absorbed all the simmering tension. Because doors and windows are always locked, it is swelteringly hot and everyone sweats. Like emotions are repressed, odours are trapped. A mutton broth sits on the stove and has been reheated for the family all week; it is probably the reason why everyone has digestive upset, resulting in the stench of vomit permeating the house.
Lizzie’s narration is the most unusual. From the beginning, her mind is shown to be disordered at best. Sometimes she speaks in a type of baby talk, repeating words: “The clock on the mantel ticked ticked” and “My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop” and “I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip.” Some of her descriptions are rather unusual: “My legs began to shake and drum into the floor and I took a bite of my pear to make them still.” Certainly her first reaction on seeing her father’s body is bizarre: she says, “’You ought to stop with the tobacco, Father. It makes your skin smell old.’” Is her confusion when describing her actions an indication of a dissociative fugue?
Benjamin’s narration, however, is the least interesting. He gives the perspective of an outsider but he really adds little to the story. His association with the creepy uncle and his proclivity for brutality do for a time suggest another suspect in the case, but I found his narrative to be a distraction. Are his psychopathic tendencies supposed to mirror those of the Bordens’ killer? He is used to fill in some of the details of the trial and subsequent events, but I would have appreciated Emma’s perspective more.
The only family member who elicits the reader’s sympathy is Emma. As a teenager, she made a promise to her dying mother, a promise which Lizzie does not let her forget: “’Don’t think you can go live without me. You’re breaking your promise to Mother. You’re selfish, Emma.’” Because of Lizzie, Emma gives up on love and has to live with the realization that “I had made the wrong decision.” She lists some of what she sacrificed for her sister: “All of it for Lizzie. My flesh heated. How could Father not have noticed?” At one point Emma concludes, “I knew deep down that I ought to abandon the fanciful and take what was real, that I lived with my father and stepmother, lived with a sibling who would never give me up. My time to be anything, anyone, had slipped. I had to live with that disappointment.”
Readers should be warned that their senses will suffer an onslaught: the author excels at auditory, gustatory and olfactory imagery. And in the end, readers may even be convinced that events did in fact occur as the novel describes.