Sweet Little Lies
Clouded memory, buried truth and unreliable testimony dominate in Black-Eyed Susans, an unmissable thriller that holds a light up to the flaws in the American justice system. Regional buyer Martha Greengrass takes a long look at this extraordinary novel.
‘For better or worse, I am walking the crooked path to my childhood.’ Black-Eyed Susans
When your memory is a house built on shifting sands, how do you trust your own mind? That is the problem at the heart of Black-Eyed Susans, a tense and unsettling page-turner from Texas author Julia Heaberlin.
Tessie is the lone survivor of a vicious attack: as a teenager she was abducted and left for dead, surrounded by the remains of other teenage victims. Nicknamed the ‘Black-eyed Susans’, for the flowers carpeting the crime scene, the victims are infamous. Tessie is the lucky one; she is the survivor, her sole testimony as witness having helped to convict the killer. Sixteen years later, Tessie has become Tessa, a mother herself, she is trying desperately to move on from her past but plagued by doubt. Forced to confront the imminent death of her attacker and the lawyers insisting on his innocence, she must consider the horrifying possibility that she was wrong. If her memory is playing tricks on her, then a killer could still be at large and she and her daughter may still be in danger.
Alternating between the voices of the teenage Tessie and the adult Tessa, this is a novel which explores the problems of relying on memory for criminal conviction. In an interview with Paste, Heaberlin talks about how her interest in memory and looking back at past crimes developed from her career as a journalist: “One of the things that I liked to do as an editor was stories where you’re not looking at the crime as it happens, but at the crime years later”. Citing Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and The Silence of the Lambs as books that influenced her writing, it is easy to see some of the same preoccupations in her writing, in particular the way her characters are haunted by past events they can’t ever understand with total clarity.
When it comes to the art of thriller-writing, Heaberlin is no novice. Black-Eyed Susans develops on themes and characters she’s explored in her two previous novels; Playing Dead and Lie Still - examinations of twisted motivation, false witness and the darkness lying under the surface of the American dream. There is an authenticity to her writing lent, in part, by the quality of her extensive research, with all of her novels having the germ of their origins in real-life events and scientific and legal precedent. For Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin followed up on an interview she’d conducted with the mitochondrial biologist Rhonda Roby, whose work on identifying the dead from excavated bone remains became a fundamental strand in the novel.
It is the insistence on absolute authenticity which makes Black-Eyed Susans so utterly compelling and chillingly relevant. Just as Tessa is forced to consider her own constructed memories, so we are faced with the far more chilling fallibility of a justice system which condemns prisoners to death on imperfect evidence. Growing-up, living and working in the so-called ‘red state’ of Texas, Heaberlin has seen first-hand the impact on communities and individuals of the death penalty and wanted to write a novel which would deliver a sucker-punch to a system she believes is fundamentally wrong. The novel has had huge impact in the USA where debates about the legality of such punishment are rife.
‘There are two serial killers at work in this story. The first is whoever attacked Tessie and killed the other Susans. The second is the state of Texas, which leads the United States, and most of the world, in the number of people it puts to death.’ - The Washington Post
This is a novel rooted in the Deep South, in the beating, bloody heart of Texas, packed full of the imagery and folklore of the American Gothic tradition, but for all its old-world feel, this is no fairy tale. Black-Eyed Susans is a thoroughly modern thriller which holds a mirror up to a frightening reality and doesn’t let us turn away.
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