First (unedited) thoughts:
Sarah Schmidt takes her readers into the cramped, contentious confines of 92 Second Straight, home of the Borden clan. Through the vantage point of four narrators, she takes us through the infamous events of August 4th, 1892, when Andrew and Abby Borden were found savagely axed to death, and their aftermath.
Though Schmidt does not shy away from the murders, the tragedy only serves as an entry point for the author’s probing into the wounds of a severely dysfunctional family. It made me think of the scene early in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (stick with me here) when Mustapha Mond compares passion to water in a pipe. He notes that if you pierce the pipe once, the water spouts high and strong like a fountain. Pierce it many times, the pressure diminished and the water dribbles. He says, “Mother, monogamy, romance. High spurts the fountain; fierce and foamy the wild jet.” Schmidt’s portrayal of the Borden’s suggests a family ready to burst.
The author’s writing is lush, visceral, and often poetic. She often turns nouns into verbs, giving the world a sinister agency throughout the book. She also employs vivid and often disturbing imagery, most commonly rely on the senses of touch, taste, and smell. Various characters throughout the book are touching, sniffing, and tasting blood and rot. At times, it becomes overwhelming and even numbing.
That said, I often found the sense of sight, and along with it, space lacking. This is especially true with the characters’ movements through the house, yard, and barn. I often lost track of a character’s position, relative to other characters or other spaces at important moments. One character’s adventures in the house (Benjamin) especially confused me as he seemed. He managed to surreptitiously move around a house packed with people (or so it seems) without being seen. He spends quite some time under a table, farting and vomiting, and no one notices. It strained credulity.
Speaking of Benjamin, he serves as one of four narrators, the other three being Lizzie, her sister Emma, and the Borden’s Irish maid Bridget. Though prominent characters, we do not hear from Andrew, Abby, or Uncle John directly. Though I found the voices and tales of the sisters quite compelling and well rendered for the most part, I struggled more with the other two narrators. Bridget, I understood, allowed an intimate outsider’s view of the family. She served almost as the reader’s proxy, and through her we felt the general claustrophobic unease of being stuck in a house with such an unhappy family. Her own family story provided a contrast to the Borden’s. Though I felt her character came across as somewhat one dimensional and at times almost stock, her presence in the novel works for the most part. Benjamin is another matter. Though I think I understand why Schmidt includes his voice, I found his chapters almost intolerable. A product of a broken family, he provides an extreme of what Lizzie might have become. He’s angry and murderous and dumb and brutal. He at first operates as a bit of a red herring, and later as another outside set of eyes through which we watch Lizzie, I don’t think he brings anything to our understanding of this family or these events. Plus, as I mentioned before, his chapters are filled with narrow escapes that stretched believability.
I also found Emma’s last chapter unnecessary.
Schmidt’s prose probes the issue of how people can live so closely together and yet have so little understanding of each other’s inner lives. Over and over again, characters wonder what it might be like to look or live inside someone else’s skin or head. It almost suggests that the the murders of Andrew and Abby, in a way, might be read as just that, someone trying to peek into the hidden parts of someone near and dear to them. Though Schmidt’s continual liberalizing of this concept became somewhat tired, I also found it the most interesting question explored throughout the book.
To sum up, though I found the prose often beautiful and haunting, and thought the author offered two compelling narrators in Lizzie and Emma, I thought the inclusion of the Benjamin character (and to some degree Bridget’s character as well) took too much focus away from the sisters and the heart of the novel. And though rich with tactile, taste, and olfactory imagery, I felt the author could have rendered the spacial reality of the house much more clearly.
A compelling first novel, though not without its flaws.