Julia Heaberlin, Black-Eyed Susans (USA)

Julia Heaberlin, Black-Eyed Susans (Penguin, 2016)

First line: Thirty-two hours of my life are missing.

Seventeen years ago, Tessa Cartwright survived a horrific attack by a serial killer, who left her for dead with his other victims in a Texan field of black-eyed Susans. After testifying in court and seeing her ‘monster’ jailed, she has built a new life with her daughter Charlie. However, when new evidence suggests that the convicted man is innocent, she realises she’ll have to revisit the past.

This psychological thriller contains a number of hard-hitting elements, not least the traumatic events Tessa endures as a teenager and her subsequent treatment by the media. Heaberlin approaches this material with sensitivity and intelligence, depicting Tessa both as a victim who is physically and psychologically scarred by her experiences, and as a resourceful and resilient survivor who has found meaning in motherhood and her artistic work. She reminded me a bit of Gillian Flynn’s Libby Day in Dark Places – and hats off to both authors for choosing to depict their traumatised female protagonists in such a complex way, without sentimentality or salaciousness.

As readers, we are taken through events via a split narrative that traces present-day developments and a younger Tessie’s experiences in the months right after the attack. A particularly fascinating strand of the present-day narrative explores the work of forensic scientists and the emerging area of isotope analysis, which can help to identify victims by matching bone samples with chemical markers from specific geographical areas. The novel also takes a sober and critical look at death penalty debates.

I found Black-Eyed Susans so gripping that I read it in more or less one sitting (I discovered afterwards that it’s part of the so-called ‘Grip Lit’ phenomenon). The final section is marked by plenty of twists and turns – some a little far-fetched – but overall, this is a very satisfying novel that’s guaranteed to keep you hooked to the very last page.

You can download the opening of the book via the BBC Radio 2 Book Club.

With thanks to Susie, who recommended the novel to our local book club 🙂

14 thoughts on “Julia Heaberlin, Black-Eyed Susans (USA)

  1. It certainly sounds powerful, Mrs. P. And I like the idea of that strength coming from the characters, rather than gratuitousness. Very glad you enjoyed it!

  2. I have heard others praise this book also. Like yourself, I do not enjoy stories involving serial killers or killings. That’s why when a friend recommended thisI passed. But your intriguing review gives me pause…..🤔

    • Tricky one, icewineanne. There are inevitably some upsetting details, but the focus on Tessa means that the usual stereotypes and cliches are avoided. Perhaps try the extract (link at the bottom of the post) and see what you think?

  3. I haven’t read this but since you suggest it, I’ll pursue it further.
    Just read a very good book, English police procedural with a very unusual protagonist. It’s “Missing, Presumed,” by Susie Steiner. Excellent story and character studies, but additionally, the author has quite a wicked wit and it comes up at unexpected places. Saying as if the thought of a woman married to a long-time male police officer, who is such a dinosaur, “Yes, that’s the UKIP-voting misogynist I picked.”

  4. Sounds good to me too. Thanks for the review, Mrs. P. I really have zero reason to add another book but *opening my wallet* looks like I’ll have to wait for it go on sale (looked up the book and it’s $11.99 in digital format). On my wishlist.

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