Review by Danielle Corcione
In the thrilling Burying the Honeysuckle Girlsby Emily Carpenter (Lake Union Publishing), protagonist Althea Bell tries to make sense of a family mystery. Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother have all died before turning 30, and her thirtieth birthday quickly approaches.
I was compelled towards this novel since my mother, who also struggled with her mental health, passed away last year (unrelated to her psychological conditions). I don’t associate with many distant relatives, and there is a lot I don’t know about our family’s history — including what our heritage is beyond being Irish. That’s why I immediately connected to the protagonist from the first chapter. Althea knew a vague outcome of a family mystery, but didn’t have much evidence or background to understand it.
The story begins when Althea is fresh out of a residential rehabilitation program. She returns to her hometown in Mobile, Alabama to visit and reconnect with her sick father suffering from Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, he wants his daughter to leave. Her past with drugs and other vices leaves her unwelcomed by her relatives. While she didn’t expect a lively party upon her homecoming, she didn’t expect such a drastic reaction, either. Her brother also happens to be running for a prestigious political office, which seems to take attention away from her own crisis.
Although her father is sick, he’s not the only one potentially near their deathbed. A family prophecy haunts Bell women, and Althea is expected to be next.
Before her mother died, she advised young Althea to watch out for the honeysuckle girl. However, the honeysuckle girl her mother once described has since vanished. Her brother stresses that her mother’s visions were likely due to schizophrenic tendencies. “I am not my mother / The honeysuckle girl isn’t real,” Althea repeats.
Yet, at the same time, she isn’t fully convinced of her mother’s mental illness. Although her mother spent time at the psychiatric ward at Pritchard Hospital, there are some missing pieces to her mother’s story, including where she was buried and why. This sends her on an emotional (and mostly independent) journey in search of her family’s past.
Throughout the book, the point-of-view switches from Althea in 2012 to her great-grandmother, Jinn, in the 1930s. As a reader, I experienced how the family mystery haunted the Althea’s ancestors 80 years prior. I became more invested reading a different perspective, especially from the protagonist’s older relative.
Althea also battles her own mental health issues. Although the story begins right after rehab, Althea finds herself in the same hospital and ward as her mother, but manages to deal and cope with those issues by the end of the novel. As a young adult, I’m starting to face my own mental health struggles, so that’s another way I identified with the character. Althea felt like a real person, just like me — and I was convinced the honeysuckle girl was, too.
The author also carefully crafted a plot set in Alabama, her own home state. I rarely read works set in the South, but it was refreshing to read a perspective (still within a fictitious realm) from someone originally from the southeastern region of the United States.
Despite the flashbacks, the story is easy to follow and sequential. For example, each chapter begins with a strong image:
At exactly three o’clock, an assembly line of shiny SUVs and sedans begin their crawl past the ivy-covered brick Hillyard Middle School. The cars opened their doors, gobbled the children up.
Additionally, chapters are organized by date and setting (such as “Friday, September 21, 2012 / Birmingham, Alabama” in chapter 23).
Carpenter’s writing style is accessible and relatable, allowing readers to step into the protagonist’s point-of-view effortlessly — even for those without a family history of mental illness. Burying the Honeysuckle Girls isn’t a light read. The prose is engaging and thrilling with moments of cliffhangers in-between flashbacks and thought-provoking character dialogue.