The great thing about having a blog is that I don’t have to be completely objective all of the time or indeed any of the time. Blogs by their very nature are personal, you read my blog because you either share my opinion on books, or you are a friend and maybe want to give me hard time about my latest recommendation. I’m great with either and will happily argue about books until the sun sets. As a consequence I don’t always approach my next read with a totally open mind, but rather sometimes I’m carrying my previous reading experience with me. Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin could have been the greatest thriller ever written, objectively speaking, but because for me it followed The Ice Twins, it really didn’t come close to greatness. Due to its location in my reading list it was good, but not great. Thrilling but not terrifying. Logical but not completely believable. In truth, it just came in second but, to Heaberlin’s credit, a very solid second.
Tessa is the sole survivor of a serial killer. Taken as a teenager, she was found buried alive with several other bodies in a field. In contrast to most novels of this type, over the sixteen years that have followed, she has gone on to build her own life, find a rewarding career and have a teenage daughter of her own. She is a strong woman, who has found a way to live with her past and move on from it. However, as her attacker sits on death row, within a few weeks of his execution date, Tessa is forced to think about her past and determine whether or not the wrong man has been imprisoned for the crime. How is it that the same Black Eyed Susans, a yellow daisy type flower that grows like a weed, that were found with her and the bodies of the dead girls have also been planted beneath her window?
If this sounds like familiar plot, it’s because it is. When, in fiction, a writer asks us to consider whether or not a man has been lawfully imprisoned, we tend to assume from the get go that he hasn’t and that the life of our main character, Tessa in this case, is in danger. That said, isn’t it always interesting to explore, or be reminded of, our own attitudes to the death penalty? Certainly, as a Brit living in California, I find myself sickened and fascinated in America’s use of this brutal and flawed process. One of the elements of the story that worked best for me, was the idea of someone waiting on death row, hoping for a reprieve and as a reader trying to understand the type of thankless and often futile work that goes into making that happen. There is an incredibly poignant scene when Tessa stands outside a courthouse on the night of a state execution, feeling the atmosphere and understanding exactly what it is that she is trying to prevent.
The book alternates between the present day, when Tessa feels sure that the actual killer is leaving her clues, and her past, following her meetings with a psychiatrist leading up to her original court date and the possibly flawed conviction. It’s a clever book, although I often found myself wishing that it would stay in the present for longer periods of time, as I found her current story more compelling than her past. That said, as with Tessa’s life, no matter how much progress the reader makes, we keep being pulled back. Best of all, I couldn’t see how the ending would come together and normally, I’m very good at that, but Heaberlin managed to utterly blindside me.
The hype on the front cover of the UK edition of this novel tells me that it’s ‘The Thriller of the Year’ and it’s not. You certainly shouldn’t read it expecting the next The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl, but Heaberlin does a good job and those pages certainly keep on turning without too much thought.