Bailey's Prize, books, Debut Novel, Historical Fiction, Reading, Women Writers

“See What I Have Done” by Sarah Schmidt

“I watched people pass by, liked the way their voices filled the air, made everything feel whole, and I felt my lips turn a smile as birds jumped over and under tree branches. For a moment I thought of capturing them, placing them in my pigeon aviary in the barn. How lucky they’d be with me to look after them. I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip. I brought my hands to mouth and began drinking, lapping with my tongue. It was soft, delicate. Everything slowed down. I saw a dead pigeon laying gray and still in the yard and my stomach murmured. I looked into the sun. I thought of Father, tried to remember the last words I said to him. I took a pear from the arbor, walked back inside.”

Sarah Schmidt tiptoes through history with the twisted, grizzly, eerily detached tale of IMG-0293Lizzie Borden, that famous New England daughter who (allegedly) gruesomely murdered her father and stepmother in 1892. Through the perspectives of a few key players that fateful day, the reader revisits the crime scene, the investigation (such as it was), an unpacking of possible motive, and an exploration of potential suspects. Though this is an historical novel based on a seminal event, it is truly an exploration of character, particular the slightly deranged, unencumbered by rational thought character of Lizzie herself. The reader sees Lizzie’s rather lame performance during the immediate aftermath of her parents’ murder. Though she states shock and upset, she is deadpan, calm, even cheery.

          “I was lead back to my chair and told to wait. The clock on the mantel ticked ticked. Dr. Bowen slumped into the room. ‘The officer tells me you’re in pain, Lizzie.’
          I nodded. ‘The very worst kind.’
          He looked at me, tired eyes hazed, and I could feel him walk into my body, survey my insides and see all the things I was made of, jolly good things. I smiled. Dr. Bowen burrowed into his medical bag like a scavenger and took out the syringe, filled it with my favor. Into my arm it went. ‘There now, Lizzie. This will make it better for you.'”

Schmidt portrays Lizzie as that character who returns throughout time, one who is pathological, bloodless, and endlessly fascinating.

          “‘Can you tell me anything more about this morning?’
          Everything was lost inside my mind, all the jitter-jitter of the morning cutting away the things that made sense. I wanted Emma.
          Everything became to bright. Voices were pinpricks in the ear. My hands ached from resting under my knees. I pulled them out from underneath me, saw a small cut on one of my fingertips, blood dried around the openings. I put it in my mouth and I shifted in my seat.
          The officer looked at me with little eyes. ‘Now, did your mother …’
          ‘Stepmother,’ I told him.
          The officer held his pen in the air. ‘I thought…’
          ‘Mrs. Borden is Father’s second wife.’ Facts need to be stated. I smiled.

It’s an archetype which, quite honestly, tends to turn me off; I often rail at the book or film that features a character who is diabolical and cold. For some reason – perhaps the historical context of this reimagining – this particular iteration of the archetype worked better for me.

Sarah Schmidt was able to breathe life into an old horror story, to make these characters fascinating, the breadcrumbs fresh. I admire the work and acknowledge its successes, though I am doubtful that it will advance beyond the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist. Perhaps my doubt is all that is needed to guarantee it’s triumph.

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books, Debut Novel, Immigration, People of Color, Reading, Women Writers

“The Parking Lot Attendant” by Nafkote Tamirat

          “During my second week on the island, I woke up in the witching hour between night and day and saw the sky divided into pink, orange, and gold. The lines between each were jagged but distinct, and I realized that this probably happened all the time, I’d just been sleeping through it. It made me hope that I would have something to look forward to.
           When I indulge in this crepuscular glory (the colors always differ, the patterns sometimes less defined) it’s easier to believe that I’m here by choice. It’s only when the sun comes out and my father silently rises from bed that I know I have once again been fooled. More infuriating is the knowledge that come the next dawn, I’ll be fooled once more.
            I’m beginning to feel old.”

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Our unnamed narrator is a high school aged girl who finds herself with her father in a secret island community established by representatives of the Ethiopian diaspora. We learn, over time, that their presence on the island isn’t completely unforeseen; over the past several years, she has ingratiated herself to a man named Ayale, virtually the king of the Ethiopian underworld of Boston, and the presumed leader of this island community.

Our narrator is now essentially held captive with her father, a man with whom she has a complicated relationship.

“It hasn’t escaped my notice that while the others persist in treating me like a plague victim, my father has only to tinker with an object for ten seconds before, hey presto, he’s the goddamn Messiah. I don’t like that people are gravitating toward him, asking him for counsel, blatantly fucking liking him. I’m sorry, but that’s not who we are and that’s not what we do: we’re supposed to be ignored and all the better for it. Nonetheless, he continues to betray me with his popularity. I don’t know why I expected otherwise. I don’t know how I could have forgotten and let myself love him so recklessly.”

The narrator embodies the spirit and essence of the novel – detachment. As a child of immigrants, as a precocious and rebellious teenager, as a member of a diaspora, she is set apart and always at a remove from the world around her.

“I had never been to Ethiopia, and didn’t much care that I hadn’t; I just assumed it would happen one day. Whenever a teacher first heard my name and feigned curiosity as to its origins, starting or ending with an insincere ‘It’s so pretty!’ I wanted to protest, I’m American! What’s an Ethiopia? How does one come to be there? How does one come to leave it to go to an America? But in truth, I was only almost American, so I gave my explanations and nothing else of myself until the bell rang.”

The challenge of writing a novel about detachment, of course, is that it strains to engage the reader in a meaningful way. From the narrator’s tone to the shadowed ways in which the plot was revealed, this book was well-written certainly, but far from gripping. Where I had hoped for a searing peek at a subculture thriving in and around Boston, the book’s disorienting atmosphere left me a bit cold and disconnected.

Thank you to Henry Holt for providing an Advance Reader’s Copy
in exchange for a fair and honest review.