Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin
I was expecting the book, but wasn’t expecting a daisy – it turns out that what is known as Black eyed Susan in the US is Rudbeckia hirta – of the aster family. It is the state flower of Maryland and grows all over North America. If you look up Black eyed Susan in UK catalogues however, you’re more likely to find a totally unrelated herbaceous perennial, Thunbergia alata, which emanates from Eastern Africa originally.
Thunbergia is a scrambling vine with heart-shaped leaves which I used to grow up a trellis as an annual (it’s rather tender to frost). The simple five-petaled flowers can vary from creamy white to deep orange. I wasn’t going to let myself be sidetracked by these botanical considerations though, so I mentally rebooted and started reading.
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When she was 16, Tessa became famous for being the one who survived. A group of girls were abducted and their bodies dumped in a patch of Black-Eyed Susans, except Tessie, as she was known then, wasn’t quite dead.
This happened twenty years ago, and Tessa has moved on and got a life as an artist and single mum to Charlie, her teenaged daughter. Life is good when she can stop thinking about the past, but it is all opened up again when a patch of the yellow daisies appears under her window. They must have been planted there, but by whom? Is the man on Death Row for the murders not the killer? Scared again for her own life and that of her daughter, Tessa agrees to work with the lawyers who believe that the man who is locked up and due for execution is innocent. Cans of worms are opened, almost literally, for the other victims’ bodies are exhumed. Forensic science has progressed far in the intervening years and experts in mitochondrial DNA are brought in to find new evidence.
Tessa’s present day story alternates with that of Tessie, now 17, in the past. Having survived such a terrible ordeal, Tessie is traumatised and is under the treatment of a therapist as she is prepared for the trial of Terrell Goodman, the man they have put in prison. He is convicted on her evidence, despite the huge gaps in her memory. Her best friend Lydia is a huge support to her through all the build up to the trial. The conviction doesn’t make it right though and after the trial, Tessie becomes mute for a long time.
It is clear that she buried things back then and more since, unable to comprehend how they fitted into the picture. Throughout the novel, this information will be teased out in both past and present, with evidence leading one way then another until a startling conclusion is reached. I loved the way that the dual time-frame added to the complexity of what you think was happening at any time, vs what she said had happened then, what she remembered happening then now and what really happened, then and now. This deliberate confusion did diffuse the tension at times but certainly keeps the intrigue going.
Heaberlin has done her research well and blended it into the novel without the details intruding too much – the DNA forensics was fascinating and well presented for example. The other area of her research was into Death Row and the work of attorneys like David Dow (see his Ted talk here) and Brit Clive Stafford Smith (I will never forget his TV documentary from 1987, Fourteen Days in May). Heaberlin’s young lawyer Bill who took charge of the case when the veteran defense lawyer passed away has his job cut out, but proves a sympathetic character and a good balance to Tessa.
I would have reviewed this novel for Shiny New Books, but it’s one of those books that is best recommended without going into much detail. I didn’t want to write a lengthy review, but believe me, I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)
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Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Penguin: Michael Joseph. August 2015, hardback, 368 pages.