"The Life We Bury" is a rare thing: a thoughtful, well-written novel, with a main character who has some depth, wrapped around a satisfying mystery, that delivers an emotional punch as well as moments of tense drama.
It's also a perfect audiobook. A story told directly to the reader by the main character, "The Life We Bury" is a natural choice for an audiobook. Having the character's voice in your ear seems appropriate and brings a level of intimacy and involvement that you might not get from the text alone. In this case, the voice in my ear was Zach Via, who got everything right. He became Joe Talbot in my head. He set exactly the right tone and pace and he was also able to bring the other characters, including Lila, to life. This one is a treat for the ears.
So what's it about?
The frame of the story is that college student, Joe Talbert, while seeking someone he can interview for a college assignment to write a piece of biography, meets dying old man, who has spent the last thirty years in prison for the rape and murder of a fourteen year old girl. As Joe captures the old man's story he begins to wonder if the conviction was valid.
A lot of novels would have stopped there. It's one of those promising premises, offering twists and turns and flashbacks, that Harlen Coben has built his career on and kept huge numbers of readers very happy with.
Allen Esken uses the mystery as a starting point to explore other questions. How should we live with the things that we've done that we are ashamed of? When we are trapped in circumstances that drag us away from what we want and who we want to be, what should we do? What do we owe to family, to friends, to strangers and to ourselves? At its heart this novel asks us to consider what it means to live an honourable life and how far that is compatible with living a happy one.
Allen Esken manages to ask those questions without retreating into either abstract philosophy or simple sentiment. His characters work it out for themselves, finding their own balance between past and present on which to build their futures.
This is an accomplished piece of writing, as either a mainstream novel or a mystery. As a debut novel it is almost intimidating. There were some points where the demand to suspend disbelief almost reached my threshold but I was so involved with the characters and the situation that I didn't mind seeing the mystery construct flex a little. There were also some points where Joe's similes and metaphors were so contrived or extended that they stood out like ink blots on the page, but I decided that they were Joe's similes and metaphors and not Allen Eskens' and wrote them off as part of Joe's way of thinking.
After I've forgotten exactly how the details of the mystery worked out and why I thought which person did what, I will remember the main characters in "The Life We Bury" with fondness and compassion. What more can you ask of a mystery novel, any novel perhaps, than that? Click on the link below to hear Zach Via narrating "The Life We Bury".