The Life We Bury by Allen EskensThe Life We Bury

This suspense novel starts out with University of Minnesota college student Joe Talbert seeking an elderly person to interview for a biography assignment in his English class. He heads to a local nursing home and after a little back and forth about what his intentions are, the receptionist suggests Carl Iverson, a recent parolee from the Department of Corrections. Mr. Iverson was paroled because he’s dying of cancer and is basically at the nursing home for hospice care.

Carl Iverson was tried and convicted of the rape and murder of a fourteen-year-old girl thirty years ago and as Joe starts his interview, he slowly finds out that Mr. Iverson is not who everyone has perceived him to be. Virgil, a Vietnam vet buddy of Mr. Iverson, tips Joe off about Carl’s innocence which ends up pointing Joe down a very dangerous path.

Joe’s personal life interrupts as his drunken mother gets thrown in jail, leaving his autistic brother, Jeremy, home alone. He comes to Jeremy’s rescue and as much as he’s tried to push it away, his family’s dysfunction becomes too loud to ignore. We travel back and forth between Carl’s story as it unfolds and Joe’s as it unravels.

Joe’s elusive neighbor, Lila, enters the story when she helps Jeremy while Joe is out meeting with Carl one day. She learns about the biography assignment and once Joe shares what he’s found so far, Lila becomes Joe’s sidekick as they dig into trial documents, evidence, and testimonies, learning with each clue that perhaps Carl was innocent after all. Joe becomes adamant about exonerating Carl before cancer has its final say and finds himself tracking down the real killer.

This novel had multiple story lines, some disturbing, some sad, and some very relatable. The characters had great backstories which were revealed scene by scene as it pertained to the main action.

I was impressed with Esken’s writing and found myself stopping often to reread wonderful sentences like this one:

“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.”

Overall, this was a suspenseful page-turner with complex characters and a “nice” little plot twist at the end. Thanks to my local book club for bringing this one to my attention!


Hallie Sawyer is a freelance writer/blogger with a passion for history, photography, travel, and books, of course. She lives in the Kansas City area with her husband and three kids, as well as her goofy Wheaten Terrier. You can find her at her website: and on Twitter @Hallie_Sawyer.


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