My favorite books have one thing in common: deep characters who take root and dwell in my consciousness after the book is back on the shelf and gathering dust because I can’t bear to part with it.
When mystery and suspense intersect with great characters and interesting sub-plots, I’m all in. Add complicated familial relationships, and, well, you’ve got my reading nirvana. That is why THE LIFE WE BURY by Allen Eskens hit a chord with me.
Joe Talvert is a college student with an irresponsible mother and a brother with autism (extremely well-drawn, I might add) whose care often falls upon Joe’s shoulders. He’s also a college student struggling to pay his tuition. When an assignment to write a biography leads him to a nursing home in search of a subject, he gets more than he bargained for when he interviews Carl Iverson—a convicted murderer who was moved to the nursing home because he’s dying of cancer. To make Carl even less palatable, his murder victim was a 17-year-old girl.
As Carl’s story unfolds layer by layer over several sessions, Joe begins to believe his claim to innocence. Although Joe’s own life holds plenty of drama without taking on the cause of freeing a convicted murderer, his good-guy conscience can’t let it go, and Joe begins to dig for answers someone doesn’t want him to find. Throughout the story, Joe’s care for his brother becomes more complicated, his mother gets in hot water, he meets a new girl, and his prospects of staying in college become ever bleaker. All of this while racing Carl’s impending death to solve a decades old mystery so at least the man can die exonerated.
The brutal Minnesota winter is so well described that I found myself shivering as I read—but it did not feel manipulative, and expertly fueled the story. The pacing is spot on, and the secondary characters are as complete and complicated as Joe and Carl Iverson—which is saying something.
Allen Eskens manages to keep all these balls deftly in the air while maintaining the focus on Joe’s personal journey—no easy task in the plot-driven mystery/suspense genre. THE LIFE WE BURY is a perfectly blended literary cocktail—although you’ll be tempted, don’t consume it too quickly. This one is to be savored.