How is it possible to make the story of Lizzie Borden boring? We all understand, and have known, the charms of a good, salacious trial of the century, and though Lizzie’s story belongs to the 19th, it’s still just as captivating as ever. Today you can bed-and-breakfast at the house of the double-axe-murder in Fall River, Mass., which does a brisk business. Even so, you might find this novel – with its eye-catching cover of a decapitated, blue-blooded pigeon – impossible not to put down.
Lizzie’s fans are already familiar with the most chilling details of the case: Her father and stepmother were axed multiple times in the face and head, in broad daylight, in the parlor and guest bedroom. Her father had chopped Lizzie’s pet pigeons to death a few months before the event. Lizzie was caught several days after the murders burning a dress in the kitchen woodstove because, she said, it was paint-stained. When the dead couple’s broken skulls were unexpectedly displayed at her trial, Lizzie passed out where she sat. The list goes on.
Lizzie was acquitted – some say due to the family’s affluence – but the mystery continues, involving no fewer than five suspects, all of whom have been studied, dissected, toyed with, and discarded in endless fictional and scholarly variations. Those suspects include Lizzie, her sister Emma, her uncle John Morse, the housekeeper Bridget Sullivan, and an unnamed man reportedly seen in the neighborhood behaving suspiciously on the day of the murders.
“A salacious story is made all the more lurid and elaborate in its imagining.”
All five of these people figure significantly in this novel. Their interweaving stories are imaginative and original, one might even say preposterous, in the details. The novel is in some respects a horror story. Its action is restricted, for the most part, to the day of the murder and the day immediately preceding – August 3 and 4, 1892.
Much is made, during this time, of the victims’ mutilated bodies lying sheet-covered in a room adjoining the parlor. The characters can’t seem to resist taking a peek – opening the door, lifting the sheets, discovering (or hallucinating) bizarre movements and voices. In short, a salacious story is made all the more lurid and elaborate in its imagining. It doesn’t seem possible to mess up this project in the sense of producing a dull or unreadable book.
Yet that is exactly what’s happened in this case. I confess that I struggled mightily just to finish the book, let alone finish it twice (I managed one and a half readings). This is a disappointment not only because the writing would seem to be such an easy task, given the raw material, but because the author displays so much talent in the opening chapters. Her sense of how an Irish wake must sound and feel (surely she’s experienced one?), or how a sleazy gentleman might approach a murderous reprobate to solicit a favor, is close to uncanny. In the latter instance, the grittiness and humor of the dialogue are priceless, and the author’s versatility and talent cannot be overlooked.
But the book, in the final analysis, is not really about an axe murder at all, but instead about the muted horrors of the dysfunctional family – which, in the author’s view, it would seem, includes all families. This is a promising premise, but one that’s left to wither on the vine as the narrative devolves into weak attempts to string together naturalistic images of vomiting, rotting teeth, bad breath, slurping and slobbering, passing gas, bleeding, sweating, and urinating.
“The book, in the final analysis, is not really about an axe murder at all, but instead about the muted horrors of the dysfunctional family . . . “
These off-putting (simply because so pervasive) tropes appear to symbolize the transitory, rotting physicality of all human beings, especially as contrasted with the living, breathing house that, however fleetingly, shelters them – a structure that pops, swells, breathes, creaks, and sighs in response to all that its inhabitants do. Despite all this noise and activity, nothing actually happens in this book for long stretches of time – chapters, even – and the reader is left wishing only that the author had given herself more time to develop the tale in ways that she clearly is equipped to do.
This is a first novel – and like many first novels I review, I’m left to comment, in the end, that the author shows a great deal of promise. One of the most pervasive problems with contemporary fiction, in my opinion, is the inability to sustain a narrative for as long as necessary to actually make a novel. This especially holds true for first tries. I’m glad I had the chance to sample this promising young writer’s work, and look forward to seeing what she does next.