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Black-Eyed Susans


Black-Eyed Susans

Is there a way to escape trauma? Is it possible to reconcile the self that existed before the trauma with the self that is birthed by it? How does one navigate relationships in the wake of a profound life change? In her third novel, BLACK-EYED SUSANS, award-winning journalist Julia Heaberlin attempts to address these questions. Heaberlin combines a strong sense of pacing with powerful literary flourishes to create a memorable and engaging narrative.

Tessa Cartwright is a 36-year-old single mother, a seamstress, and the sole survivor of a serial murderer. When she was 16, she was found, barely alive, in a patch of black-eyed susans with the corpses of three other young women. Now, with the execution date of the killer approaching, Tessa begins to doubt if he is actually guilty after she is contacted by a prominent defense attorney. Plus, someone has been leaving her presents in her yard --- black-eyed susans. She must confront the tragedy that she has tried to escape for most of her adult life, help a legal team prove that the man originally arrested for the murders is innocent, and, most importantly, ensure the safety and sanity of her teenage daughter.

The book is told in two timelines: the months immediately following Tessa’s attempted murder and the weeks preceding the imprisoned man’s execution. Differentiating teenage Tessa (“Tessie”) and adult Tessa is never a difficult task. Younger Tessa has a petulant, occasionally malicious, arrogance that calcifies to a jadedness and general distrust of others. It is the older and introverted (and, frankly, more interesting) Tessa on whom the novel focuses.

"Heaberlin combines a strong sense of pacing with powerful literary flourishes to create a memorable and engaging narrative."

BLACK-EYED SUSANS is a slow burner but is never boring. Information is divulged as necessary and the tension is never slack, at least in the present-day timeline. Tessa’s struggle to make peace with her past trauma is no less interesting than her attempts to figure out the identity of the true serial killer. However, the same can’t be said when comparing the two timelines --- the earlier timeline feels purely supplementary. It’s not simply that these scenes are significantly shorter than those in the present day, but because it’s almost purely expository. Psychologist appointments, preparing for court, court transcripts --- this timeline is all discussion and internal development. One of the primary issues of this narrative, Tessa’s trauma-induced blindness, is introduced without much foreshadowing and disappears just as quickly.

One of the only redeeming aspects of Tessie’s narrative is the realistic portrayal of pediatric psychology. It can’t be overstated how much Heaberlin’s experience as a journalist contributes to the integrity of the novel’s world. Clinical psychologists and forensic scientists are integral to the plot, and their depictions feel realistic and consistent. Most notably, the discussions of forensic identification methods are descriptive, but brief enough that they don’t detract from the plot’s momentum.

This is only bolstered by Heaberlin’s innate understanding of cadence and voice. While she  has no qualms about using language solely as a tool to propel the plot, Heaberlin will also work in sentences that completely shake up the pacing of a scene. While there are occasions when her descriptions veer into overindulgence, lines like “I am the star of screaming headlines and campfire ghost stories” more than compensate for this.

Heaberlin’s talent for bringing a character’s voice to life brings Tessa’s emotional journey to the forefront and also brings to life a complicated and nuanced story of trauma and closure. This success, however, only makes the forced conclusion of the mystery all the more frustrating. Structurally, it should have worked. There are enough red herrings to keep readers guessing throughout, and the characters’ developed understanding feels earned. Ultimately, it stems from Tessie’s storyline feeling too expository and developmentally forced. It’s a shame because Tessa’s narrative is so well rendered up until that point --- even the epilogue feels like a natural extension of the book.

While BLACK-EYED SUSANS is suspenseful, its biggest strength is in its poignant depiction of adapting to life after tragedy.

Reviewed by Matthew Mastricova on August 21, 2015

Black-Eyed Susans
by Julia Heaberlin