Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Life We Bury

Joe Talbert, a struggling college student in Minnesota with an autistic brother and a violently alcoholic mother, receives a writing assignment and winds up interviewing Carl Iverson, a Vietnam vet convicted of raping and murdering a girl more than 30 years ago and who is now dying of cancer in a nursing home. As Joe delves deeper into Carl's story, he becomes convinced the wrong man was convicted. Meanwhile, Joe feels terrible guilt and pressure about his own family.

Part mystery, part thriller, part family drama with a touch of coming of age, The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens was a book I had trouble putting down. I finished it in less than three days. The story moves at a brisk pace as fascinating revelations about the characters unfold.

The story is told in first-person narration from Joe's perspective, which makes sense because he's a writing student. Some of the more compelling passages of the book occur as he just sits with Carl and tries to think of the right questions to ask to get the truth from him. As he learns more about Carl's past, Joe realizes not everything is what it seems. These character interactions are so strong, the last third of the book, which becomes more like an action thriller and is resolved with a violent confrontation, is almost a let-down, but Eskens' writing keeps the book exciting even when the plot feels like it's on autopilot with a too-neat resolution.

Eskens crafts a strong sense of place. As you read, you'll feel the crunch of snow beneath your feet and the chill of the Minnesota air. At one point, Joe winds up stranded alone in the woods without much to survive on, and you'll feel cold and hungry along with him. Be warned: there are a few violent parts, but except for a description of what happened to the murdered girl, Eskens avoids lingering on explicit, gory details.

The only part of the book I didn't like was Joe's relationship with his monstrous mother. For a character with so many pages devoted to her, she's awfully one-dimensional, and her subplot takes the reader away from the more interesting mystery.

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