“Snow White poisoned. Cinderella enslaved. Rapunzel locked up. Tessie, dumped with bones. Some monster’s twisted fantasy,”
“I am the Cartwright girl, dumped once upon a time with a strangled college student and a stack of human bones out past Highway 10, in an abandoned patch of field near the Jenkins property. I am the star of screaming tabloid headlines and campfire ghost stories. I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans. The lucky one.”
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin follows Tessa (no longer ‘Tessie’, a name which has been abandoned along with her childhood innocence), lone surviving victim of a serial killer who dumped her along with three other dead girls, buried amongst the yellow flowers known as ‘Black-eyed Susans’, which also becomes their moniker. Hindered by her memory loss surrounding the incident, Tessa struggles to pinpoint who has done this to her, working through therapy and recovering with help of her best friend Lydia, but all the while unsure about what happened leading up to the time she was found and why she was chosen.
Now, 17 years later, Tessa’s doubts grow heavier about the man apprehended and serving on death-row for the crime, especially as the deadline for his execution approaches. Re-examining the facts which don’t seem to add up, she re-counts the times that someone has planted Black-eyed Susans flower around her home, left there for her to find, as well as potential clues she has found and kept over the years. Now an adult with a teenaged daughter of her own, Tessa goes back to her memories and looks back with an adult mind, working with the police and with new DNA and forensic methods to find out if the right man really was caught, or if she is still in danger.
I’m not usually a big fan of the flashback method but in this case it works, the two narratives of Tessa at 17 after her abduction weaved with the perspective of Tessa in present time 17 years later work well together. The flashbacks are not prolonged or dragged out, and serve to heighten the anticipation as Tessa slowly unravels the mystery in both time periods.
Filled with intense, eccentric and interesting characters, the novel is a well-crafted one, making the mystery pulled together by not only the characters but their backgrounds and their stories. There’s Tessa’s grandfather with his morbid fascination with death, fairy-tale stories and a giant, almost grotesque castle of a house; her best friend Lydia, a highly intelligent young girl who supports Tessa with witticisms and poetry, yet is fascinated by death, celebrity gossip murder cases and eccentric parts of history, Tessa’s own daughter Charlie, wiser than her years and cool in the face of Tessa’s fears; and of course their scatty elderly neighbour Effie, a quirky, brilliant scientist who can’t cook and is worried about someone stealing all the diggers in the neighbourhood.
I won’t agree with critics who say this is for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – although it may perhaps have a touch of the same dark mystery of Dark Places by the same author, which follows a woman looking for answers about her family’s massacre. The book is one that slowly creeps up on the reader, intense but well-researched, combining the psychological with facts about forensics. For those who like thrillers and mystery, this is a good pick although be prepared for a slower unravelling of the story rather than fast-paced action.
Although I wasn’t entirely too satisfied with the ending of this novel, it is a good one, and there is enough of the unexpected if you don’t spot the hints along the way. Heaberlin has an ability to create characters which, although flawed, are interesting ones – Tessa herself is a myriad of emotions and but her growth from scarred teenager to a stable, confident woman and mother is admirable. This is a satisfyingly creepy and compelling story, almost a twist on a dark fairytale which leads you through to new questions with each new answer given – but definitely a thriller to remember.