When I first saw the cover of Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin, I was mesmerized by it. The fragility and almost translucence of the woman’s body, clearly naked and immersed in a patch of wild flowers, was both disturbing and at the same time beautiful. In the image, the woman covers her eyes with her arm, indicating either despair or that she’s blind to her circumstances.
I was looking for a creepy thriller read for Halloween, and Black-Eyed Susans’ plot of a victim trying to unmask her attacker seemed the perfect choice. There definitely were some disturbing aspects to the novel, including some visually raw language about crime scenes and victims’ bodies and obviously the terrifying character of a killer potentially hidden in plain sight.
I don’t scare easily, though, so I would say if you’re the same you won’t find Black-Eyed Susans to be the kind of book that’s hard to read before bed. It was creepy and titillating, but aside from a few moments in the novel, not turn-on-all-the-lights scary. A little late for Halloween, but here is my review!
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin
Published: May 31st 2016
Tessa was only sixteen when she woke up in a shallow open grave, surrounded by the bones of other women and the dark faces of black-eyed susan flowers staring down at her from the field she found herself in. Suffering from psychosomatic blindness due to the trauma of her attack, teenage Tessa works with a therapist to attempt to regain her sight and also her memory of the attacker who abandoned her in that field to die. Eighteen years later, Tessa is faced with the imminent execution of the man she helped to place on Death Row, realizing that she is not at all sure that he is in fact her killer. Tessa has to return to her difficult childhood memories of those years, and figure out who is a friend and who is an enemy in this spine-tingling whodunit thriller.
What I Liked
Unlike other thrillers I have read before, Black-Eyed Susans seemed to have a plethora of twists throughout the story rather than just one or two during the story and then a big on at the end. The final twist was certainly the more shocking/unexpected one, but the many little twists throughout kept me turning the page and being more and more interested to see what Tessa (and at the same time I as the reader) would discover next.
I liked the use of DNA and scientific evidence throughout the novel. It lent a credibility to the investigative proceedings carried out by the police and forensic analysts that were attempting to exonerate the convict placed on Death Row for the Black-Eyed Susan murders. I felt like the parts of the plot that involved discussion or examination of evidence were written in a believable and well-researched way.
The way in which the author chose to jump between chapters related by a teenage Tessa right after her attack and then modern-day adult Tessa lent an interesting component to the story as well. The two different narrative voices were able to explore different aspects of the way in which Tessa thought and felt about her attack, as well as demonstrate the progression through time in her views on her experience.
I also liked that adult-day Tessa was depicted as a very strong female character being a single mother and a survivor of a traumatic event. She’s ferociously protective of her daughter and independently takes matters into her own hands when she decides to look further into some of the unsettling happenings that have occurred since her assault, which suggest the murderer may still be at large. Even though the author provides Tessa with burly male characters that she could easily lean on, Tessa remains headstrong and self-reliant in her pursuit of the truth.
What I Didn’t Like
I’ll try to be vague but this could be a bit of a spoiler, so read on at your own risk if you intend on picking up the novel eventually. I felt that the character of Tessa’s friend Lydia was not very believable in the way she was characterized. She seemed at one time intelligent, caring and sensitive and then in some parts of the story almost the opposite. I felt that the author could have done a better job of foreshadowing some of the more problematic aspects of Lydia’s character in the scenes from Tessa and Lydia’s teenage years after Tessa’s attack, so as to make Lydia’s character seem more consistent overall throughout the novel.
Gripping, well-crafted page-turner that will keep you guessing along with the characters. Definitely worth a read for lovers of intricately constructed thrillers.
Have you read Black-Eyed Susans? What did you think? Are there other similar thrillers you’d recommend?
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