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BLACK-EYED SUSANS
by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine, May 2016
368 pages
$16.00
ISBN: 0804178011


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It's hard to describe this book. It's a fairy tale for grownups who are willing to explore just how creepy those children's stories really are. Or it's gothic suspense. It's psychological drama. It's another thriller that's twisty enough that it could have had the word Girl in the title. It's a courtroom drama with a loudly ticking clock. Whatever it is, it's best categorized as "a really fine novel."

Told in two time frames and two voices by the same woman, we learn the story of Tessie, who has been found close to death in a field of sunflowers, buried with the remains of two other girls. She has no memory of what happened, and she's temporarily blinded by trauma. The only way she clings to reality, as a psychologist probes her experience and detectives close in on her assailant, is her best friend, Lydia, who treats her the same as always and never lets her feel alone.

As an adult, Tessa is trying to leave behind her identity as one of the "Susans" at the center of a sensational crime story. She's now an artist and a single mother who lives with a teenage daughter and, from time to time, the other Susans, the unidentified dead girls, who still murmur to her. Her best friend Lydia, though, is gone. She moved away abruptly right after the trial and sentencing of her assailant. His execution date is approaching, and activists who oppose the death penalty have been looking into his case. It's possible that new technologies will help a forensic scientist identify the other Susans. Tessa is no longer so sure the condemned man is really guilty. Too many things don't add up, and even more troubling somebody has been planting black-eyed susans at her house.

What stands out about this book is its accomplished and graceful writing. What could be a simplistic and manipulative melodrama is nothing of the sort, though it delivers what such books promise. It's suspenseful, it's creepy, it presents the reader with a puzzle to solve, it has those unexpected twists we always expect, but mostly it's a compelling narrative about characters who feel real and complicated, sometimes troubled, often funny, always smart and observant. The author gives us something familiar in a voice that's fresh and rewarding for a change.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, June 2016

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