For someone who is only 20 (or thereabouts) Joe Talbert has had a tough life. An absent, unknown father, a mother who has chosen alcohol and abusiveness as her means of dealing with undiagnosed mental health issues and having to be the responsible person for his autistic brother at far too young an age. Despite all this somehow Joe has managed to carve out a life – dreams even – for himself and is doing the hard graft needed to achieve them. As the novel opens he has transferred to university from community college and for one of his assignments he is required to interview an elderly person and write their story. Lacking any suitable candidates in his immediate circle Joe heads to the nearest nursing home looking for a likely candidate. The only person not suffering from dementia or other conditions that would make Joe’s project impossible is Carl Iverson. The man who the home’s staff wish would just pass away quickly and quietly from his pancreatic cancer because he was convicted of the rape and murder of a teenage girl three decades earlier.
The thing that struck me most about the book is that it seemed like Eskens had taken notice of all the things I’ve ever said or thought wrong about other books and written something without all those problems. Don’t worry, I’m not egocentric enough to believe that’s what has happened here but it’s the best way I have of explaining why I really loved the book.
For example, there’s no doubt that the subject matter is dark and even strays towards bleak on occasion. Fair enough too; Joe’s life is comfortingly grim and unfair especially when viewed from my relatively privileged position. And Carl Iverson’s life isn’t a walk in the park even without taking into account the hideous crime he was convicted of. But Eskens does not wallow in the bleakness, wrapping his characters in clouds of misery as so many books are want to do. There is lightness and humour and hopefulness too. For me this makes the book much more emotionally powerful than the one-note stories that seem to clutter the top of award-winning lists.
I wondered recently if I was too old to read a book featuring a 20ish protagonist because in that instance I found the character annoying and someone I couldn’t relate to on any level. But youth is not the only thing I don’t have in common with Joe Talbert yet I found him totally compelling. His trouble juggling all the elements of his life, his guilt over his own past actions and his tenacity in the face of fairly grim odds make for a really engaging mix. The other characters in the novel – including Carl and Joe’s neighbour-come-love interest Lila, are equally well drawn and credible.
Although THE LIFE WE BURY explores the theme of the secrets that everyone keeps in a very thoughtful way the book is, first and foremost, a ripper of a yarn rather than a treatise on the human condition. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the plot but it’s not just any old book that compels me to finish it in a single siting (not counting the odd loo break). To top off all this juicy goodness the book is exactly the right length for its story and even has a satisfactory resolution. Highly recommended.
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Thanks to blog visitor Ellen for recommending this book for the Minnesota leg of my Reading USA Fiction Challenge. As the main point for me of this particular challenge was to find new and interesting male, American authors (because I noticed a couple of years ago that I hardly read any male American crime writers) I’m very pleased to have a new author to follow. This is the tenth book I’ve read that I’m including in my virtual tour of the US for which I’ll eventually read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.
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Publisher Seventh Street Books 
Length 300 pages
Book Series standalone?