Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

A review of the crime thriller novel Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin.

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The bodies of four teenage girls were found dumped in an open grave shrouded by yellow flowers known as Black-Eyed Susans. Two girls were merely skeletons, one had only just died, and the fourth was barely alive.

17 years on and with the convicted murderer approaching the death chamber, the scar-marked fourth ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ still remembers beetles crawling up her nose and scuttling through her hair. She still sees flashes of the slowly clouding eyes of the girl who died in the grave and has heard the voices of all three murdered girls ever since she awoke from the ‘event’; secret whispers pleading for her to remember the 32 hours that her trauma has forced her to forget. She knows the voices aren’t real, but she cannot explain the appearance of freshly planted Black-Eyed Susans outside her window or the artefacts from her teenage years that keep cropping up. She begins to wonder if the man facing the electric chair was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time all those years ago, and if, just maybe, her real monster is still out there, still playing his sick games.

This book is broken up into three sections and within each are several perspective-flipping chapters. The first switches between present day Tessa aged 34 and ‘Tessie,’ the same character at 17 years of age shortly after she was saved. The second section switches between present day Tessa and extracts of plot-enlightening notes of the trial which put the ‘killer’ on Death Row. The third part of the story does something I usually loathe when I am used to reading a single character’s perspective, which is switching to a whole other character’s first-person view. But this perspective, as with the first character at both ages, is authentic and plausible and makes complete sense to the story, and I greatly enjoyed ready it. I can’t say as to who the character is as it could be seen as a bit of a spoiler, but this fast-paced switch between Tessa and another crucial character towards the end of the book is breathtakingly brilliant to read.

There has been a high level of research undertaken by the author in the making of this book, which raises warning flags for me as to a boring book that reads more like a scientific documentary than fiction, but the human way in which this information is both delivered to the main character and the genuine way in which she reacts to it makes it easy to follow and comprehend, even for someone like me who hasn’t the first idea of the use of bone DNA for identification of corpses. Yet at no point did it feel like it had been dumbed down for a reader to understand.

Now I’ve finished the book I’m able to step back and fully grasp the brilliance of this story; the intricacy of the details including subtle and satisfying foreshadowing and the painstakingly raw emotions and accurately varying human responses that make every scene and character tangible and absolute 100% real people. Tessa has the most full-bodied character voice I have ever read—which at first I found difficult to get into due to the somewhat jarring rhythm—and as a result I had to re-read many paragraphs and lines of dialogue. However, once I’d read the first few chapters I was addicted and found her inner voice and speech patterns came very naturally.

The personality, inner thought processes and dialogue of Tessa, and her more open teenage self ‘Tessie,’ made this book for me. Her responses to daily experiences are bitter and realistic, plausible and often dryly humorous. The other characters are fantastic too, with just as honest human detailing, but it was the Tessa/Tessie first person perspectives that I enjoyed the most. The dual perspectives allowed me to easily see they were the same person, but with the older version more subtle and controlled in her reactions due to a further 17 years of life experience.

If it were the accepted thing to only pay for a book on reading completion, I’d offer up a nice little sum of money in appreciation for such a captivating, surprising and stunning read. However, I came upon this book while in the wrong room at a conference centre, placed unread on a shelf in a book exchange that no one seemed aware of. I now feel a little sorry for whoever placed it there, as like myself it’s likely they were put off at the start by the unusual voice of the main character. If only they had read on a little further and let Tessa’s inner thinking become a little bit more familiar, as their fictional surrender has resulted in them missing out on an incredible story.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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