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…If I had known how that drive would change so many things- would I have taken a safer path?
The Life We Bury
by Allen Eskins
Seventh Street Books | 2014
Paperback | 300 pages
Genre: Fiction/Murder Mystery
Review Source: Personal Copy
★★★★ 4/5 stars
The first time I water-skied (and stayed upright) I remember the exhilarating thrill of being pulled up rapidly onto the surface of the water and the feeling of flying out of control in the wake of the boat.
The opening paragraph of The Life We Bury left me feeling that I was up on my skis and heading into one hell of a story, as it too, careened out of control. Allen Eskins’ debut novel measures right up there with the best for suspense and drama. Things start out small and build and build until you are holding your breath as the plot reaches its climax. And the final chapters bring you back to a soft landing with a real feel good ending.
What makes this book so special to me are the well crafted parallel story lines. The hardships of a self-funded college program are difficult enough but Eskens has tossed Joey other battles such as abuse of the disabled, parental alcoholism, mental illness, caregiver stress and the emotional struggles of dealing with an out of control bi-polar mother. Other topics that certainly were explosive and thought provoking include vivid descriptions of Vietnam service and religious fundamentalism.
Joey Talbert, 20, recently left home in the dead of night, not to join the circus he says, but to avoid the heated argument certain to occur if he told his mother he was leaving to attend college. The hard part was leaving behind his beloved severely autistic brother, Jeremy Naylor. His wildly erratic alcoholic mother, Kathy Nelson would have pitched a fit if she had had a chance to stop him.
His decision to attend the University of Minnesota was so last minute that his class choices were limited and he had to fulfill his English language requirement with Biography English. His term project was to interview an elderly person to “tell about the struggles and forks in the road that made them who they are.” Without living grandparents he needed to find an elderly person pronto so the obvious place was a nursing home. Hillview Manor had more than its share of elderly but only one resident still had all his marbles, Carl Iverson.
Carl Iverson had arrived at Hillview Manor straight from Stillwater Correctional Facility where he served 30 years of a life sentence for the horrific rape and murder of a teenage cheerleader. Carl’s life sentence would end soon as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. With little choice, Joey reflected that at least his biography project of the life and times of a deranged murderer would be unique. While he waited to see if Carl would agree to be interviewed, Joey did research on the murder.
“I found a picture [of Carl Iverson] in the bowels of the University of Minnesota’s Wilson Library… The archive room had the feel of a tabernacle, with millions of souls packed away on microfilm like incense in tiny jars, waiting for someone to free their essence to be felt, tasted, inhaled again, if only for a moment.”
The moment they meet sparks fly. In a scene somewhat less traumatic than Clarice and Hannibal Lector, Carl and Joey agree to answer each other’s questions honestly – quid pro quo. And thus begins a hair-raising experience that nearly costs Joey his life. Carl’s biography evolves into much more than a college project and as the suspense builds you want to hold Joey back… don’t go there!
Threaded through the main arc of the story is a tender friendship that eventually leads to a deepening love relationship between Joey and his neighbor, Lila. And I just had to save mentioning my favorite part until the end – the deep love between brothers. Jeremy’s story brought tears to my eyes.
Highly recommended. Fabulous book club selection!
Winner—Rosebud Award, Best First Mystery Novel
Finalist—Edgar® Award, Best First Novel
Finalist—Anthony Award, Best First Novel
Finalist—Minnesota Book Award, Best Genre Fiction
Finalist—Barry Award, Best Paperback Original Novel
Finalist—Thriller Award, Best First Novel
Best Books of 2014 (debut), Suspense Magazine
Best Debut Novel of 2014, MysteryPeople
A LibraryReads pick, October 2014
Library Journal Editor’s Pick, fall 2014
Amazon Editor’s Pick, “Books We Loved” 2014