51QThEzR7eL. AC US160 Is the same man who risked his life to save a friend dur­ing the Viet­nam War also capa­ble of rap­ing and mur­der­ing a fourteen-​year-​old girl? Does one act of herosim make impos­si­ble the one of sav­agery? Or is char­ac­ter so fluid and per­son­al­ity so elas­tic that any­one may be capa­ble of anything?

These are some of the ques­tions col­lege stu­dent Joe Tal­bert finds him­self deal­ing with when he opts to ful­fill an Eng­lish assign­ment by inter­view­ing and writ­ing a biog­ra­phy about Carl Iver­son, con­victed mur­derer, now an old man dying of can­cer in a nurs­ing home. Joe’s bur­dens extend far beyond the aca­d­e­mic ones: his alco­holic mother spins in and out of his life like a recur­ring car crash, leav­ing Joe to take care of his autis­tic brother Jeremy.

At first, much of Joe’s inter­est in Iver­son lies in the fact that a pretty neigh­bor, Lila Nash, finds the case fas­ci­nat­ing, but lit­tle by lit­tle, he comes to ques­tion Iverson’s guilt. With his mother in a down­ward spi­ral, Joe also has to decide just how much he’s will­ing to sac­ri­fice for his brother. Eskens’ nar­ra­tive is grip­ping, his char­ac­ters endowed with all the frail­i­ties and con­tra­dic­tions of human nature. By the end, I found myself root­ing for a happy out­come for both Joe and Jeremy, who despite his men­tal chal­lenges, helps Joe and Lila uncode a diary that’s vital to Iverson’s case.

By the final chap­ters of the book, the plot twists ratchet up the sus­pense as Joe makes a har­row­ing escape from the clutches of a reli­gious zealot and Lila faces an even dead­lier threat from an unex­pected source. The end­ing may strike some read­ers as a bit too ‘sto­ry­book’, but after every­thing Joe, Lila, and Jeremy have been through, I found it satisfying.

Although THE LIFE WE BURY was pub­lished in 2014, I dis­cov­ered it only recently. Hav­ing read it, now I’m eager to begin read­ing Eskens’ other novels.

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