Book Review: Lies We Bury by Elle Marr

Two decades ago, Marissa Mo escaped a basement prison—the only home she’d ever known. At twenty-seven, Marissa’s moved beyond the trauma and is working under a new name as a freelance photographer. But when she accepts a job covering a string of macabre murders in Portland, it’s impossible for Marissa not to remember.

“The lies we tell ourselves during stable hours—like I’m a good person or I don’t deserve this—become the lies we bury deep down, too far to access, in times of pain.”

These thoughts are from the mind of protagonist Claire Lou a.k.a. Marissa Mo who is one of the more troubled narrators you will come across. In fact, the trauma she underwent twenty years prior to the action in Elle Marr’s terrific new novel Lies We Bury makes her the ideal unreliable narrator because we may not know what is going on in her PTSD-addled mind. Marr opens things up with a terrific quote from Sigmund Freud which becomes quite telling: “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

Secrets never stay buried for long and no one appreciates that sentiment more than a photographer. The camera lens never lies, and freelance photojournalist Claire Lou is well aware of this. She takes on an assignment for the Portland Post in Oregon initially earning one dollar per photo for a local parade she covers. Her editor is so impressed, and coincidentally in need of a photographer due to a temporary opening on her staff, that she assigns her to the crime beat. Claire accepts and negotiates a deal for $100/hour for this more dangerous work.

The only problem is that Claire Lou is not who she claims to be. At age twenty-seven, this single and very troubled young lady has been desperately trying to remake her life and get away from her past as the infamous Marissa Mo. Infamous because she and a handful of other females—three adults and three children—were part of a brutal case of long-term imprisonment where a sick individual named Chet physically and mentally abused them in two tiny basement rooms for the first seven years of Claire’s life. Chet, who was originally sent away to life imprisonment, has somehow made parole and is just days away from being released.

This fact is troubling enough but soon gets amplified when Claire finds a note left under the windshield wiper of her car that gives a cryptic threat and ends with SEE YOU SOON, MISSY. Only Chet called her by that name and Claire is now more paranoid than usual. She has a tenuous relationship with her two ‘sisters’ who were imprisoned with her—Janessa, a recovering drug addict, and Lily, who has just returned from abroad and now has a young daughter of her own. She has little to no relationship with her mother, Rosemary, or the other surviving adult, Nora. The third adult, Bethel, died during childbirth in the decrepit basement giving birth to Lily.

Elle Marr cuts back and forth between present-day and the events of twenty years prior as we get more of the puzzle pieces to possibly explain Claire’s state of mind and who might be antagonizing her. It will get much, much worse for her as whoever left her the note has graduated to murder. The trouble is that Claire is forced to cover these murders as a photojournalist, all the while snapping photos of the dead bodies each found in the tunnels beneath various Portland bars. Even more troubling is that each victim is found with something that belonged to Claire when she was imprisoned all those years ago.

What makes Lies We Bury work so well is that the reader can never be sure if what we are experiencing through Claire’s eyes and mind is actually the way things are playing out in reality. She is approached by an author named Shia who indicates he will pay her 100K for details provided to him as he is planning to write and release a big expose of the imprisonment experience as only she can share. As the killer continues to torment Claire, she does not know who she can trust. Things begin to steamroll and inevitably her cover will be blown as she herself becomes a major suspect in the grisly series of murders.

I admit that I was unfamiliar with Elle Marr prior to reading Lies We Bury. She has a very engaging style of writing that instantly drew me into the narrative and has deftly created extremely complex characters that never become unbelievable in any way. The plot is well-handled right through the satisfying ending. I may not have heard of Elle Marr before, but now she is an author I will be on the lookout for going forward.

Read More: Our Review of Elle Marr’s The Missing Sister

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