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Review: Burying the Honeysuckle Girls by Emily Carpenter

Althea Bell has been on the road to recovery many times in her life. Her latest attempt at rehab will hopefully be her last, as she promised her father she’d get clean and come home to take care of him as Alzheimer’s looms over his head. Althea has finally conquered the honeysuckle girl, and illusion left to her by her mother on the eve of her passing. Or so she thought. Her brother with his political ambitions wants to see her put away permanently, to keep from causing more issues than she’s worth, and her thirtieth birthday draws closer. Will she unravel the mystery of her family legacy before her own life is destroyed on the day she turns thirty? Or will she be yet another buried woman in her family?

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CW: This book contains mentions of murder, rape, inappropriate relationships, animal mutilation, domestic abuse, substance abuse, drug addiction, mental health problems, hallucinations, drug overdoses, death, racism, racially motivated violence, and gun violence. Where appropriate, additional warnings may be used in this review.

What is Burying the Honeysuckle Girls about?

This book is about Althea and her journey, both to conquer her addiction and to discover the fate of her mother, her grandmother, and her great-grandmother. The women in her family have all been struck down at the age of thirty and Althea, now clean, is worried about losing her life right when she begins it. She feels her family is conspiring against her, or even worse: they’re right and she is due for a psychotic break on the day she turns thirty.

Interspersed with Althea’s story are chapters from the life of Jinn Wooten, the mysterious great-grandmother whose life seems to be shrouded in tragedy and mystery. As she steps closer to her thirtieth birthday, Jinn is making plans for a better life, one that we know she won’t achieve even as her real fate is unknown to Althea and the reader.

Genre: Mystery

Overwhelmingly this book is a mystery novel, with glimpses of the mysterious life Jinn lid and Althea’s own journey to discover her family’s past. There’s the barest hint of the Southern Gothic–part of why I wanted to read this in the first place–but despite promising moments it never quite reaches that genre threshold.

Tropes: Blood on their hands

My god are there a lot of characters with blood on their hands. Some more than others, but nearly everyone Althea interacts with is in some way responsible for the cover up of someone’s death. Additionally, there’s a lot of “protecting the family name” that goes on to a point that it’s almost ridiculous (I’ll touch on this in “The Bad” section).

Plot: Converging timelines

Just as Althea’s life is spiraling towards her inevitable thirtieth birthday and the supposed horrors that come with it, Jinn’s chapters are heading towards the murky unknown fate that the reader is left wondering about. Jinn’s fate is revealed in the climax of the story, and despite knowing that something happened when she turned thirty the reader, and Althea, are unsure of what that might be (except for guesses). Both Althea and Jinn’s stories converge on the eve of their thirtieth birthday–also an auspicious event for Collie and Trix. Both of their stories consist of familial horror and both reach the climax at the same time.

The Good

I got very emotionally invested in Althea’s story early on. I was actually surprised by how strongly I reacted to her brother’s attempts to psychoanalyze her and her gut reaction to his demands. I lost this a little bit as the stakes got escalated higher than I felt they needed to be, but I still sympathized strongly with her and with the women of her family.

The Okay

I think that at times this book was grasping for more content than it needed. The inclusion of some side characters was genuinely unnecessary, and led to simple mentions to wrap up plot threads. For example, Althea follows a lead to a woman whose brother was a Civil Rights activist who went mysteriously missing, and she worked for Collie for a time. While the idea of linking Civil Rights activists to the mysteries in Althea’s family started out promising–and could have added a more sinister twist to the ending–it ends up being abandoned for the rest of the climax and resolved in a single throwaway line. There were a few other threads like that, involving Pritchard (the mental health institute references throughout the book) and other women that were just a hair from making genuinely insightful statements on mistreatment of marginalized people in the South but ultimately left things lying where they were.

The Bad

Look, I get it, I’m from Alabama myself: family drama is kept locked up tight. When you have political ambitions, you especially keep family drama to yourself so that your opponents can’t use it against you. But to be entirely honest, at least half of the drama in Althea’s family was a direct result of people in the family trying to hush up drama. I kept waiting for there to be something bigger. It was obvious the women in the family were being repeatedly hushed up for trying to seek something better, but that was….it. As I mentioned in the above section, I hoped there would be something more with the mental health institution or the civil rights activists, something that made this family genuinely insidious. But nope. It was a bit of a let down honestly.

Final Thoughts

This book was definitely written with a lot of empathy and emotion. I found myself sucked into Althea’s perspective more than Jinn’s–perhaps due to it being first person–and I felt at least shadows of all Althea’s emotions in her journey. I felt outrage on her behalf multiple times, and I was engrossed by the end of the book, reading nearly all of the last half in one sitting. The mystery that unravels is sinister, and despite some of my thoughts on what I found lacking, it was a good story at its core. A haunting and sad one, but a good story. I enjoyed some of the poetic justice that occurred by the end, as well, because I did feel so strongly on behalf of Jinn and her female descendants. Not to mention, everything that happened in this story read like something I’d believe as history and nonfiction. The story was compelling, the characters interesting, and the climax heartbreaking.

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By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

One reply on “Review: Burying the Honeysuckle Girls by Emily Carpenter”

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