Published by Random House
Publication date: January 3rd 2017
Genres: Childhood, Contemporary, Debut, Fiction, Literary
One hot August day a family drives to a mountain clearing to collect birch wood. Jenny, the mother, is in charge of lopping any small limbs off the logs with a hatchet. Wade, the father, does the stacking. The two daughters, June and May, aged nine and six, drink lemonade, swat away horseflies, bicker, sing snatches of songs as they while away the time.
But then something unimaginably shocking happens, an act so extreme it will scatter the family in every different direction.
In a story told from multiple perspectives and in razor-sharp prose, we gradually learn more about this act, and the way its violence, love and memory reverberate through the life of every character in Idaho.
When a mother brutally murders one of her young children in the first quarter of a novel there is an expectation that the motivation behind the act will be a theme or, maybe, her backstory and how it led to such an act, but in Emily Ruskovich’s debut, Idaho, neither happens. I picked up, put down and tried to re-engage this novel multiple times in the course of several weeks. If Ruskovich’s prose had been any less gorgeous I would not have finished the book. Instead, I kept thinking it was going somewhere, but the destination never arrived.
There is the story of Jenny and Wade and their little girls. Then the murder and disappearance of the other daughter who runs away from the crime scene and is never found. Jenny confesses, is sent to prison and we follow. We meet her cellmate and learn her story. On the outside, a year later, Wade marries a younger woman and begins the slow descent into early onset dementia. His new wife Ann tries to cope with this man who, in contradiction of the premise of marriage, is becoming less familiar not more. When she connects him to the tragedy in their small town she tries to recover the memories he’s losing. This pulls her deeper into his past, but without a connection to Jenny there are no answers. And Jenny, even in the chapters she narrates, is not talking.
These things were a kind of collection she began to keep, a list she would run down in her mind, eventually not out of pain anymore but out of wonder, as if something were right there on the edge of her life, waiting for her to discover it.
She’s pulled deeper into his past, but without a connection to Jenny there are no answers. And Jenny, even in the chapters she narrates, is not talking.
Instead, Idaho pitches and rolls, from one character and timeline to another. Neither multiple timelines or numerous characters are problematic in a novel because they work to create an evocative slice-of-life. But when there is no through-line, glue, something to connect the dots, there can be no whole, only diffuse fragments. Without that something to hold onto Idaho is beautiful sentences in search of a story.