So I just finished Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin and before I started it, I was kinda worried. I have a record of not liking these mega-hyped crime novels almost every time (the most recent being Disclaimer, which earned a coveted 2/10). But with Black Eyed Susans, I was pleasantly surprised. And even though it has a hell of a lot of flaws, I found it engaging enough to carry me to the end.
Black Eyed Susans follows Tessa, a woman who was the victim of a disgustingly terrible crime when she was a teenager. She was dumped in a grave with three dead girls surrounded by black-eyed susans. Now, there is a suspect, Terrell Darcy Goodwin, behind bars on death row, a man who Tessa helped to convict, but black-eyed susans start to appear outside of her window and shadows are seen around her house. She starts to believe the real killer is still out there and with the help of lawyer Bill and pathologist Jo, she sets out to prove Terrell’s innocence.
For most of the novel, the narrative is split between Tessa in the present, and Tessie (her childhood name) in the past, as she gets therapy directly after the attack. I liked how the actual event wasn’t explored thoroughly, and Heaberlin seems more interested in the emotional upheaval such an event has on the human psyche, than blood and gore. It’s a nice way to approach the narrative, and is employed well. Tessa is haunted character and Tessie is incredibly screwed up.
Tessie isn’t an incredibly likeable character. She is a snappy teenager, who not only thinks the world is out to get her, but also has the proof. She manipulates people, emotionally attacks her doctor, and is just an all round bitch. The only grounding she has is her best friend Lydia, who seems about as stable as she is. It takes a long time for the past narrative to justify itself (nothing much happens) and it paints our main character in a different, more insipid light. In the early parts of the narrative, we are only presented with things we already know, which can be slightly too repetitive.
While the writing is generally fine, Heaberlin has a tendency not to explain herself much. The early parts of the novel were actually quite hard to get into because of this. Names, references and locations are dropped without any explanation at all, and I found myself with a hell of a lot of stuff to puzzle out. And not particularly in a good way. I was just confused.
This manifests itself later in the novel as a lack of environmental description. Tessa will show up at a random place, saying something like ‘I can’t believe I’m back here again.’ and that’s all you get for about two pages afterwards to let you know where she is. I’ve actually gone back to some of these instances to check I didn’t miss something, and I didn’t. In the present narrative, Tessa travels to a lot of places on a whim, and nine times out of ten, we don’t get any description for where she actually is. We have to piece it together from her clues. And that gets old fast.
Black Eyed Susans moves along at a fairly good pace. The events of the narrative are mostly one-note, and sometimes it feels Tessa is just along for the ride, rather than carving out a story for herself, but I found it compelling enough that I read most of the novel in a day. The one big caveat though is the ending. At the time I felt it was fine, but the more I think about it, the more it doesn’t actually make much sense. Obviously I can’t really go into it in a spoiler-free review, but I’ll just say it’s all about timings. It just all wraps up a little too conveniently. When I could see something gearing up for a rather different and more interesting final act, Heaberlin has already checked out.
Black Eyed Susans also has a very entertaining prologue. It’s basically a ‘Where Are They Now?’. All I had in my head was that it felt like an 80s teen movie where we freeze-frame on all the characters as some text appears to tell us what happened to them afterwards, as some bad pop-rock music plays. Needless to say, I couldn’t take it seriously.
Overall, Black Eyed Susans was worth the read and I did enjoy my time with it. But at the same time, there’s nothing here that’ll blow your mind and there’s definitely a few areas that are rather infuriating. So, yeah, I’m kinda torn on what to give this one. Guess we’ll all find out in about 30 seconds.
(Also, newer versions of this book correctly hyphenate the title (Black Eyed Susans to Black-Eyed Susans). If you are wondering where the hyphen in the early version went, it went into the word teenager. For some reason, Heaberlin always hyphenates teenager (teen-ager) in every delineation of the word. ??)
Black Eyed Susans is a competent and compelling thriller, which managed to keep me invested till the end. The story of Tessa, the girl who crawled out of a grave when she was a teenager, is flawed but fun, as she starts to think the man she helped to convict isn’t her monster after all. It’s a different approach to a crime novel, but manages to fall into the exact same traps as its contemporaries. With these caveats however, Black Eyed Susans stands strong as a thriller worth your time.
BLACK EYED SUSANS by JULIA HEABERLIN