Review: The Life We Bury

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

Seventh Street Books, 2014.  Trade paperback, 301 pages.Cover: Life We Bury

This debut mystery novel by Eskens falls somewhat outside what I would usually review.  It’s not quite historical fiction, but yet it isn’t either.  It’s one of those titles that blends genres.  I think the review that follows will explain.

Joe Talbert is a college student who has recently escaped a bad situation at home.  One of his class assignments is to write the biography of an older person.  Since he has no living older relatives aside from his dysfunctional mother, he goes to a nursing home to ask for assistance.  Joe is given the opportunity to interview Carl Iverson, a paroled inmate dying of cancer.

Carl is a Vietnam vet who did not adapt back to civilian life.  When his young neighbor girl was found raped and murdered in his burning shed in 1980, Carl was accused of the crime.  He made no protest as he was arrested and asked for the trial to proceed posthaste. Knowing his days are now numbered, Carl wants to tell the true story of everything that happened and it begins during his time in Vietnam.  Not all is as it seems.  Once that is realized, Joe with the help of his neighbor Lila Nash, and his autistic brother, Jeremy, they embark on a journey to uncover the truth.  Along the way, they use creative means and encounter unforeseen dangers.  Deep relationships also develop between the four main characters, including new-found love between Lila and Joe.

I give Eskens credit for tackling three hotbed issues.  First, those seen as child molesters are usually looked down upon.  While this occurs at first, he shows how the transformation that all is not as it seems changed how people treated Carl.  Second, Eskens addresses the issue of PTSD.  Carl clearly suffered from it based on the killing and other disturbing things he saw and did in Vietnam.  We see how these issues affected him nearly until the end of his life, nearly forty years later.  Lastly, Eskens made one of the key characters of the book autistic.  While exhibiting all of the key traits of severe autism Jeremy also has a hidden brilliance that was key in solving the mystery.  This should serve as a reminder that some with autism are brilliant (for real-life example, think Temple Grandin).

The book was written is a descriptive prose that missed few, if any, details.  It was penned in the first person, making readers feel like they are in Joe’s shoes.  All the emotions felt by the characters are strongly evoked, making the reader believe them.  The case took many twists and turns leading to its resolve.  Most were unpredictable or led one to think one way, just to be proved differently later.  In all, a well-written debut.

Have you read this or another work by Esken?  If so, what did you think? I know I prefered this over his second book, In the Guise of Another.

I won a copy of this book in the drawing sponsored by First Look Book Club, a reader’s advisory newsletter for librarians, back when the novel debuted.  This review just got lost in the shuffle of the many books that debuted at about the same time.


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