This week I’m back, although slightly later than normal, sorry about that! This is a review of one of my summer reads, a rather disturbing psychological thriller from Julia Heaberlin. The book was published by Penguin in July last year and has received a lot of praise from critics and media outlets since then, even dubbed the “thriller of the year”. Key themes for anyone interested in the macabre are: death, capital punishment, guilt, forgiveness, assault, memories, childhood, hypnosis and memory recovery.
Black Eyed Susans is narrated by Tessa (Tessie – her teenage nickname), a girl who escaped from a serial killer. The narrative account alters between the present day and Tessa’s teenage years, around the time of her kidnapping in 1995. The alternation between Tessa and Tessie can be slightly confusing at the beginning as the reader is left to piece together links between present day and the trauma of her abduction. There is also the sense, from very early on in the novel that Tessa and Tessie are unreliable narrators, keen to create any response to difficult questions asked. As we are not quite sure to what extent we can trust Tessa, Heaberlin retains the element of mystery until almost the end of the novel. The book follows Tessa along her journey of remembrance, to discover who killed the black eyed susans, the names for the girls he has killed and who has been planting black eyed susans (as seen in the picture below) in familiar places. There are a number of suspects throughout the novel, including a few red herrings which distract you from some character’s inappropriate behaviour. Her present day narrative is overshadowed by the knowledge that one of the suspects is days away from death, receiving the death penalty. With time running out, Tessa desperately tries to follow any clues to the murderer, not knowing a whole range of other secrets she’ll uncover in the process- will Lydia be found dead or alive? and who is Rebecca?
Whilst a little slow to start, Black Eyed Susans becomes increasingly darker and more complex and it gets easier and easier to feel frustrated with narrator Tessa for her lapses in memory and deliberate lies. Heaberlin slowly builds the tension by creating the pace and course of the novel around the countdown to Terrell’s punishment, by death. The chapters become shorter and shorter towards the end as both Tessa, and the reader start to piece together the loose ends. The flower imagery that pervades the novel is particularly striking, the typically beautiful and natural symbol of such a flower, becomes a threat to Tessa and links her back to the killer and the other black eyed susans that are no more.
The book questions the legal system in Texas, America as Tessa reveals how she felt forced to testify against Terrell just so the juridical system could prove a progression in the case ans satisfy public anxiety. Tessa herself is unsure to whether it was Terrell or not. This creates sympathy for Terrell on the reader’s account as he seems, ironically, one of the more innocent and decent characters in the novel. He is one of the only characters who doesn’t pressurise Tessa and shows signs of forgiveness and understanding towards her, despite her role in his conviction. The sense that an innocent man could be killed due to Tessa’s lack of memory reiterated the flaws in capital punishment, particularly in cases like Tessa’s where there is some discrepancy or lack of evidence. It also tainted my perception of Tessa as one more innocent person could be killed because of the black eyed susan’s killer, it would seem like another victory.It questions the morality of the death penalty- is punishment by death really the best punishment anyway? Many would say that it is a better punishment to let the criminal live to feel guilty for their crime and learn the hard way about their actions, and that just punishment will be received through karma or another natural means.Psychologically, the novel also questions whether we can trust very young or severely traumatised witness accounts.
It is, after all, a search for the truth which Tessa needs, but what is most unclear is who or what is getting in the way of this. The lines between friends and enemies, and the boundaries between power and subversion of this, are blurred beyond distinction.
My rating: 3-4
I would highly recommend this book for those looking for a complex and imaginative psychological thriller which ends in a spine chilling revelation about just what happened in 1995. Great for those interested in guilt, punishment and forgiveness, and for those who like a challenge, to figure out who the killer is before Tessa does.
Thanks for reading, my next book review will be on The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt.