First Sentence: I remember being pestered by a sense of dread as I walked to my car that day, pressed down by a wave of foreboding that swirled around my head and broke against the evening in small ripples.
Joe Talbot’s college English course writing assignment to write a brief biography leads him to a local nursing home and Carl Iverson. Carl, dying of cancer, had been released from prison after being convicted of the rape and murder of a neighbor girl. Carl’s only condition is that both parties be honest. As Joe digs into Carl’s conviction, the more he believes Carl. He also finds there’s someone who doesn’t want that to happen.
Eskens as a wonderful voice which captures, and holds, one’s attention—“Oddly enough, my high-school guidance counsel never mentioned the word “college” in any of our meetings. …--maybe she knew who my mother was and figured that no one can change the sound of an echo.” His descriptions make the ordinary come alive—“The archive room had the feel of a tabernacle, with millions of souls packed away on microfilm like the incense in tiny jars, waiting for someone to free their essence to be felt, tasted, inhaled again, if only for a moment.”—as does his strong sense of place—“The triplex apartment building I lived in had an ancient cellar that breathed dankness up through the floorboards, filling the structure with a pungency born of wet dirt mixed with the tang of rotting timber.
Eskens’ characters come to life. They are fully developed and dimensional. As much as Eskens may tell us, one wants to know much more—“Are you talking about killing or murdering? “Is there a difference?” Mr. Iverson looked out the window as he pondered the question…”Yes,” he said. “There is a difference. I’ve done both, I’ve killed…and I’ve murdered.” What’s the difference?” “It’s the difference between hoping that the sun rises and hoping that it doesn’t.”
Joe is humanity and the defender. He is the one who is always there for his autistic brother. He is the one who doesn’t accept Carl at face value. He is the one willing to ask questions. He is the one willing to dig into Carl’s case to find the truth. Lila, Joe’s neighbor, starts out as the prosecutor, the common person who sees the label and judges. It is to Eskens’ credit that her role changes as the story develops and as she looks beyond her preconceptions.
There are elements of wisdom—“But we do have control of how much of our soul we leave behind in this mess.” There is also a metaphorical ticking clock, and actions by Joe which fall into the too-stupid-to-live category, which is rather amusing from a male character, but both elements add tremendous tension. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of coincidences. The ending is a bit over the top, but it also makes one smile.
“The Life We Bury” is a wonderful read with much to recommend it; the author’s voice, interesting characters, and excellent suspense. One will want to read more by this author.
THE LIFE WE BURY (Trad Mys-Joe Talbert-Minnesota-Contemp) – VG+
Eskens, Alan -Standalone
Seventh Street Books, Oct, 2014