Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

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Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Liz Green
Reviewed by Liz Green
Summary: Gripping psychological tale about a teenage girl who survives an attack by a serial killer and tries to recover her memories before the alleged killer is executed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: August 2015
Publisher: Michael Joseph
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0718181338

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I knew little about this book before I started it - other than the intriguing title and the scant information that it is a psychological mystery about a girl who survives abduction by a serial killer. For those who, like me, can't resist suspense (and it seems that many people do fall into this category, according to the bestseller lists at least), this is enticement enough. And I was not disappointed: this story offers psychological uncertainty and suspense from start to finish. The narrative alternates between present day and the past, each section lasting just a couple of pages. I found this structure tricky at first, although each chapter does offer a helpful timeline and the chapters are short enough that it's easy to reorient yourself. Once I got used to the choppy style I found that it did work, and it worked really well, reflecting the constant flashbacks and mental turmoil experienced by Tessa, the protagonist.

The storyline itself is straightforward: Tessa was abducted by a serial killer as a teenager and was found, barely alive, with the bodies of other victims, who were subsequently dubbed the Black Eyed Susans by the press on account of the flowers left by the bodies. Now, years later, with the execution of the purported killer/abductor imminent, the appearance of black eyed Susans planted in Tessa's garden is enough to prompt her into taking action to retrieve her memories and make sure the right man is in prison.

What makes this book so enjoyable is the contrast between the teenage Tessa and the psychoanalysis she underwent immediately post-abduction, in her traumatised, trying-to-forget state, and the adult Tessa who is trying to remember. As a study into a confused and frightened mind, it is fascinating and wholly believable. Tessa knows that the answers are in her head but she cannot, or will not, access them. There are clues along the way but it's almost impossible to piece them together as you read: Tessa's mind is so disturbed that her narrative juxtaposes reality, false memory and her imagination, and the reader has as much difficulty grasping the truth as she does. It's clever stuff.

In many psychological thrillers, the ending is a bit of an anticlimax - the tension ratchets up to such an extent that, when you finally get to the big reveal, you have that 'is that all?' feeling. Not the case here. The denouement is unexpected, plausible and perfectly satisfying. What I would have liked, though, was a bit more psychological observation of the people around Tessa. A bit more flesh to the other characters, and insights into the motivation behind their behaviours, would have provided added interest, making the novel, and its ending, even more fulfilling (and gaining Julia Heaberlin five stars).

Apart from the fact that Black Eyed Susans is a thumping good mystery, it is also very well written. Plenty of information on DNA and forensic investigation is woven into the narrative (but so fluidly that it is effortless to read and digest) and it is evident that Julia Heaberlin has taken great care with her research. Tangentially, the novel also provides food for thought with its insight into capital punishment in Texas. Again, she's done her research and in her acknowledgements offers further reading and websites for more information.

Recommended reading: for another masterful suspense novel, again concerning a potential miscarriage of justice, try A Room Swept White by Sophie Hannah. Sandrine by Thomas H Cook offers a courtroom drama involving a death penalty case.

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