When my neighborhood book group recently chose The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens, I had never heard of the novel. I was quite surprised when I tried to get a copy and found a long waiting list at my library and the cheapest used paperback copies online going for $9! After reading it, I understand the popularity of this suspenseful but thoughtful mystery about family and memory.
Joe Talbert is a student at the University of Minnesota, assigned to interview a stranger and write a biography of him or her for his English class. Joe heads to a local nursing home, near his rundown apartment, where he meets Carl Iverson, a Vietnam veteran who has been given a medical parole from prison because he is dying of cancer. Carl was convicted – and spent 30 years in prison – for the rape and murder of a teenage girl. Repelled by his crime, Joe nevertheless starts to interview him, since he’s waited until the last minute, most of the other residents of the home are unable to speak or remember clearly, and Carl is willing to talk to him.
As Joe interviews Carl and begins to write about his life, he becomes more and more intrigued. The man before him, sharing his life story, just doesn’t seem like he could do the brutal things he was accused of. As Carl tells Joe about his past, and especially about his horrifying experiences in Vietnam, Joe begins to wonder whether Carl was convicted unjustly. With the help of his neighbor, Lila, he begins to dig into the events that occurred 30 years ago.
Joe’s schoolwork and project are, however, interrupted and sidetracked (as they often are) by his own problems with his alcoholic mother and autistic brother. Parallels emerge between Joe and Carl’s lives: horrible events that they have each felt guilty for and tried to forget. Their lives intertwine as Carl’s condition worsens, and Joe becomes more and more determined to investigate his crime and conviction. The interview and biography that began as a simple school project become an obsession for Joe.
This is an unusual novel, with enough mystery, suspense, and action to satisfy any thriller lover, but the kind of emotional depth that also appeals to those who enjoy literary fiction. You can read it primarily as a fast-paced mystery/thriller or dig into its many thought-provoking ideas, as we did in our book group discussion. This story touches on themes of family, memory, and how the past affects the present, even when we try to forget it. It also delves into the morality of what happens during war and how guilt can eat away at a person.
My book group enjoyed this novel, with ratings ranging from 6 to 10, and a lively discussion that went on for hours, easily moving from one topic to another. After I finished it, my husband – who mainly reads mysteries and thrillers – also read it and enjoyed it. The plot has lots of twists and turns that keep you guessing right until the end, and the characters feel real and three-dimensional. Some in our group felt it was unrealistic the way things wrapped up and worked out in the end, but I’m a sucker for a happy ending! The Life We Bury is a thrilling rollercoaster ride of a mystery with a thoughtful underbelly, all wrapped up in a compelling and original story.
300 pages, Seventh Street Books