The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel by Erika Mailman
Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done she gave her father forty-one!
Bridget Sullivan was one of 13 children born into the copper mining community in Allihies, on the Beara Peninsula. Squirreling away a small piece of blue copper for luck, Bridget shipped out to America in 1883. Money earned as a maid was sent back to West Cork.
Andrew Borden, a wealthy mill owner, lived thriftily, in a clapboard house which was strangely and inconveniently conformed to keep family members apart. Meals were taken in shifts for the same reason. Miss Emma and Miss Lizzie, the sisters, born to Andrew and his late wife Sarah, ate together after the patriarch and his second wife, Abby had dined. Borden confides ‘we have some odd arrangements in this house, and I’ll welcome you keeping quiet on personal matters’.
The atmosphere in the house was tense, partially poisoned by Mr Borden’s miserliness but also heightened by the siblings’ unpleasant behaviour. Bridget endured it all for a number of reasons. At least Mr Borden, unlike her two previous masters, kept his hand off her. And she felt compassion for the second Mrs Borden whose life was made miserable by her resentful stepdaughters. Lizzie’s somnambulism made Bridget nervous as did other strange occurrences such as mysterious appearances and disappearances of menstrual napkins. Bridget’s attempts at resignation were challenged by large cash bonuses destined for her impoverished family in Ireland.
The entirely fictional narrative centres on Brooke Hernandez, who has secreted her birth name, Felicita, behind a tangle of aliases. Brooke is convinced that someone, maybe the same person who killed her mother, is pursuing her as she flits from one state to another, working below-the-counter waitress jobs and living in temporary accommodation.
Brooke seems to think that reading true crime will help her keep one step ahead of her putative murderers. When she reads about Lizzie Borden’s trial, however, she is astonished to be immersed in the story of ‘women whose skirts drag the floor, who use privies and chamber pots and ride in horse-drawn buggies’.
After her mother’s death Brooke met a young boy, Miguel, at the group foster home in which they were raised. Although separated by distance the two friends keep in daily touch online. No one else is Brooke’s friend on Facebook and when an egg icon pops up named Randy Shotglass Brooke replies ‘I’ll crush you, eggshell’. Over the years small incursions into her various rooms have prompted Brooke to move on. A pot or magazine might have been moved marginally suggesting that ‘he’ has found her. Brooke, however, is distracted by a new relationship with attorney, Anthony, whom she met at her place of work.
Bizarrely she and Anthony take a weekend break in Fall City, staying at the Lizzie Borden B&B. The unique selling point of the guesthouse is that inside Abby and Andrew Borden were axed to death. On sale is a wind chime with a dangling axe suspending ‘iron blood drops’ and a ‘bobblehead, spattered with blood and holding an axe, glaring with wide-open, creepy eyes’.
The Murderer’s Maid is an engaging book championing two young women from humble backgrounds. It seems churlish to compare it with Margaret Atwood’s excellent Alias Grace, also based on a notorious crime committed in a household of masters and servants. That was a serious novel which examined, forensically, class and gender. This tale resembles the books that inspired Mailman: Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. In other words it’s not quite grown up.
Alcott, L. M. Little Women. 1868/69. Roberts Brothers. Print.
Atwood, M. Alias Grace. 1996. McClelland & Stewart. Print.
Mailman, E. The Murderer’s Maid: A Lizzie Borden Novel. 2017. Bonhomie Press. Print.
Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables. 1908. L. C. Page & Co. Print.
Pearce, P. Tom’s Midnight Garden. 1958. Oxford University Press. Print.
A version of this review was first published on page 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 19th May 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.