Reviewed by Erin Britton
When the reluctant witness to a murder has to take the law into his own hands, there’s no telling just how far he will go to secure justice.
This slow-burning thriller from Rick Christman centers on the belated awakening of an archetypal everyman character, exploring how even the most solid and mundane life can be upended by an unexpected tragedy.
With more than one brutal crime at its heart, the novel highlights the darkness that can lurk under even the most charming of facades. Christman pulls no punches when revealing the lengths that his reluctant hero is willing to go to in response.
When Robert Russell returns home from the Vietnam War in 1971, he wants “to get far away from the military, to forget everything that had happened to him.” With that goal in mind, he enrolls at the University of Wisconsin and studies English with the aim of eventually becoming a professional writer. “He wanted to be an imaginative writer, and he had begun writing stories every spare minute he could get during the war, stories that could have happened to him but hadn’t. Or stories that may have happened to others.”
While his studies go well, Robert enters into a far less edifying relationship with an acquaintance named Anna, who happens to be married to Curt, a friend of his from high school. Anna and Curt are in an open marriage, meaning that there is nothing stopping her from pursing her interest in Robert.
However, although their three-year relationship eventually amounts to nothing more than a bit of fun for Anna, Robert falls hard for her and is heartbroken when she casually ends things.
Subsequently, Robert becomes committed to living the life of a reclusive; he is friendly to everyone he encounters, but he has no friends and certainly no romantic relationships. After gaining a Ph.D. in American Literature, he accepts a teaching job at a community college in Ankeny, Iowa. This marks the start of a twenty-five-year career during which he is popular with students and colleagues alike, even though he keeps them all at arm’s length. Despite enjoying life as a teacher, at the age of fifty- five Robert decides that it is time to retire and seriously pursue his dream of writing a novel.
He decides to move to the picturesque community of Beaufort, South Carolina: “The place was as much like a fantasy world as he had ever seen.” Having quickly found a house to purchase and mentally planned out a solid routine for himself, Robert expects that his solitary life in Beaufort will progress much like his solitary life in Ankeny, albeit with more writing.
Yet, it soon appears that the change of scene might be making a new man out of Robert, as he finds himself enthusiastically entering into a romance with pretty new neighbor Mary Anne Reece.
Unfortunately, not everything in Beaufort is quite as rosy as Robert’s burgeoning love life. While out for a run one day, he witnesses the murder of a young Black man and, despite knowing that he should inform the police of what he saw, finds himself paralyzed with indecision: how can he reconcile his desire to remain anonymous in his new community with his knowledge that he should help to ensure justice is served? “Robert had seen many men die, young men, but none of them had been murdered… War and murder were two different things.”
As he mulls on what he should do, Robert decides to finally focus on writing his novel, allowing the facts of the murder as he witnessed it to serve as his initial inspiration. “He had already made some notes, and he began to try to develop a story line. This would be a long process. But he loved writing, and he had all of the time in the world now.” It might not be the most ethical approach, but it does result in him getting words on paper. In fact, satisfied with his new home, happy in his new relationship, and pleased with the progress he is making on the book, Robert feels more contented than he has in a long time.
Yet, he can’t quite shake the nagging feeling that he should have reported the murder. What if there was some other witness who reported that he was also there? What if the killers become aware of what he knows? And when a second tragedy occurs, Robert can no longer maintain his isolation from the world. He has to finally take some action, even if doing so requires him to return to a life that he thought he had long since left behind.
The Burden of Memory is a surprisingly dark novel, as Christman evocatively contrasts both Robert’s mundanity and Beaufort’s tranquility with the seedy criminal underbelly of the town. In fact, despite its wholesome outward appearance, Beaufort is home to a significant drug culture and a despicable people trafficking ring, and Robert reluctantly finds himself embroiled in both when he finally decides to wake up to the truth around him. As such, there is a fair bit of violence and gore involved in the story, as well as several shocking turns of events.
While he certainly appears to grow as a character throughout the novel, coming out of his shell and beginning to fully interact with the world around him, Robert still remains something of an enigma. It’s clear from the outset that the Vietnam War has left a mark on him and that he did things he would rather forget, but Robert’s transformation into a man of action seems rather sudden and unlikely, as does the willingness of former comrades who he has not seen for some thirty years or so to assist him with deadly and covert matters.
Saying that, Christman makes it clear that during his time as a recluse in Ankeny, the one fulfilling regular interaction Robert had was with his taekwondo master, which goes some way to showing his aptitude for both combat and mental focus. In addition, Robert’s surprising change in demeanor is a good way of wrongfooting the reader and emphasizing the hidden depths that people have, even those whose thoughts and feelings are apparently set down on the page. Still, I would have loved more of Robert’s backstory a bit more earlier in the novel.
Moreover, Robert’s decision to pursue a romantic relationship without hesitation or concern almost immediately he moves to Beaufort comes as another surprise given the limited backstory provided for him. After the debacle with Anna, Robert has apparently been celibate and aromantic for twenty-five years, which renders his apparently instant attraction to Mary Anne a tad unconvincing. It may have worked better if he had entered into sexual relationships over the years but studiously avoided falling in love. But then, Robert’s romantic awakening is a major driver of the plot and does serve that purpose well.
Ultimately, The Burden of Memory is a thriller that moves in unexpected directions, keeping the action taut and the intrigue suspenseful. Beaufort is a town with hidden depths, most of which people would be best off avoiding, which means Robert has to dig through some serious dirt in his attempts to get to the bottom of things and ensure the safety of both himself and those he loves. There are plenty of lies and double-crosses to work through, and Christman has certainly crafted a complex criminal trail for his main character to follow.
Thank you for reading Erin Britton’s book review of The Burden of Memory by Rick Christman! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.