What it’s about:
College student Joe Talbert has the modest goal of completing a writing assignment for an English class. His task is to interview a stranger and write a brief biography of the person. With deadlines looming, Joe heads to a nearby nursing home to find a willing subject. There he meets Carl Iverson, and soon nothing in Joe’s life is ever the same.
Carl is a dying Vietnam veteran–and a convicted murderer. With only a few months to live, he has been medically paroled to a nursing home, after spending thirty years in prison for the crimes of rape and murder.
As Joe writes about Carl’s life, especially Carl’s valor in Vietnam, he cannot reconcile the heroism of the soldier with the despicable acts of the convict. Joe, along with his skeptical female neighbor, throws himself into uncovering the truth, but he is hamstrung in his efforts by having to deal with his dangerously dysfunctional mother, the guilt of leaving his autistic brother vulnerable, and a haunting childhood memory.
Thread by thread, Joe unravels the tapestry of Carl’s conviction. But as he and Lila dig deeper into the circumstances of the crime, the stakes grow higher. Will Joe discover the truth before it’s too late to escape the fallout?
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens is an excellent debut novel. I loved the story premise, layout and the characters; the audiobook narration added to the experience. The Life We Bury is not exactly a “cozy” murder mystery and not quite a police-procedural; it is a hybrid of sorts. Joe’s English class assignment seems like drudgery, but it ends up leading Joe down a wild and dangerous path. Who knew that homework could be deadly?
As main character Joe learns about his homework subject’s life (Carl), the reader learns about Joe’s life. This assignment pushes Joe to reveal and examine his life and choices. His hard-luck upbringing, his derelict mother and autistic brother, along with his scrappy self-sufficiency in pursuing his goals makes him a highly likable and empathetic character. Carl, the homework subject, realizing that no one is likely to believe his professed innocence, doesn’t try to convince Joe. Forcing Joe to research Carl’s past and come to his own conclusions in the process, made for a more interesting story. While you could assume that Carl is guilty of the heinous crimes for which he was incarcerated, I was betting on his innocence. What I wasn’t prepared for were the other secrets and gems that were revealed about Carl’s life. Jeremy, Joe’s younger, autistic brother, stole the spotlight. His purity and trust in his brother will melt your heart. It doesn’t hurt that Jeremy opens the door to a relationship with Joe’s elusive, female next-door neighbor, Lila.
While I wouldn’t call the plot-pace fast, I also wouldn’t call it slow. I was hooked from the start of The Life We Bury, and I remained engaged throughout the story. I couldn’t take Joe’s naivety regarding his mother, but his desire to believe in her and his inability to not help her out, just made him imperfect yet exceedingly realistic. My one strike against the book was the confrontation/zenith of the story. It was exciting but I struggled with the stretch in believability. The Life We Bury is an exciting read that should leave you wanting to engage a senior in conversation to uncover some interesting real-life stories.
The audiobook is narrated by Zach Villa.