Although centred around a murder, your debut novel Idaho (2017) does not revolve around the questions of who might have done it or why; yours is much more a book about atmosphere; a collection of first impressions and lost tracks, crossed through by the motif of loss.
In the middle of summer, on a mountain in Idaho, Jenny, a young mother, kills her 6-year-old daughter, May, with a hatchet, while her other daughter, eight-year-old June, runs away deep into the woods. Jenny is then sentenced to life imprisonment, while her husband, Wade Mitchell, the only survivor of this carnage, marries Ann, the local piano teacher.
The story is told from various points of view, in a fragmented way and in non-chronological order, spanning a period of about 50 years. We are thrown back and forth between the character’s multiple perspectives: Ann, as she attempts to piece together the clues about the murder; May, in her final days, as she tries to catch her sister’s attention; June, as she slowly leaves childhood and tries to pull away from her younger sister; Elizabeth, Jenny’s cellmate; Wade, as he recollects his childhood and the early days of his relationship with Jenny; Eliot, a boy June knew from school; and even the dog that was set on June’s trail when she disappeared.
The narrative is held together by Ann’s voice, as she tries to understand the events of that tragic summer day in 1995. When we first meet her, nine years have passed since the murder, and Wade has started to show signs of early-onset dementia. As he slowly loses his memory, Wade suffers from short spells of violence against Ann, as if he were reacting to a phantom pain, a sense of loss he can no longer trace back nor understand.
The strength of your book, for me, lies precisely in the interplay between what is remembered and what is forgotten – and, in-between those two, the interplay between what really happened and what was imagined as a way of filling in the gaps of what was forgotten; the interplay between what happened and what might have happened. As the sole murder witness has started to forget the events, Ann is led to follow his trail of lost memories.
And we already know she is doomed to fail. Ann is the keeper of a past that don’t belong to her; a past that is very much coloured by her imagination, by her obsession for understanding Jenny, and by her persistent sense of guilt. Like Wade’s fleeting memory, Ann’s perception of the murder is also changing and full of gaps, as fragmented as “dozens of blackbirds, startled at nothing.”
Every time she tries to understand the murder – to think the unthinkable, to touch the untouchable heart of Wade’s loss, Ann comes across a void. “Ann sees May, sitting with her hand perfectly still in mid-air, waiting for the fly to trust her so she can kill it, and then there is a black stop in Ann’s mind.” It turns out that, much like Wade’s memory, his loss might also have a hollow heart. “Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention. No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.”
The great merit of your book lies in the very fact that you refused to fill in this void: there’s no clear light thrown into the events surrounding the murder, and there’s no final redemption. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. The senseless act of random brutality at the novel’s core remains what it is – incomprehensible, senseless, random, brutal, unspeakable – “a feeling already gone.”
The void at the book’s centre is captured perfectly by its tone and atmosphere: a combination of strangeness and familiarity. The severe beauty of your writing reflects that of the landscape in the story – the isolation, the smell of wood and rain, the buzzing flies, the suffocating heat during summer and the snowed-in winters.
However, as much as I appreciate the fact that you tried to retain the complexity of the events by refusing to explain and resolve them, I cannot help but feel that, by adopting a fragmented narrative – especially in the final chapters, the smallest and sketchier ones –, you have done exactly what you had intended not to do in the first place: you have reduced (and thereby avoided) complexity by compressing it to fit in the tiny blocks of your puzzle; you have circumvented the void, instead of crossing it through to the other side; you have cut up the threads as if they were bad roots; you have left a “blot of silent earth across the moment”. Like your character Elizabeth, who prefers silence over “a failed attempt at saying what she means”.
I have the feeling that some of those threads might turn out to be the seeds that lie in waiting for you in the books to come. As it is, Idaho revolves around a void like a firefly around a lamp – it is beautiful and strange, always on the verge of throwing itself on a bulb of fire, but never quite daring to.
“How quickly someone else’s life can enter through the cracks we don’t know are there until this foreign thing is inside of us. We are more porous than we know.”
― Emily Ruskovich,
“Jenny remembers what it was like, all those years ago. It was never dolls for her, nothing so tangible as that. It was more of a feeling. As if, for the first several years of her life, everything held over her a sort of knowledge and insistence. Fence posts, wallpaper, the lawn at certain hours of the day. These things glowered at her, or smiled. Even something as ordinary as the blue rolling chair in her father’s office had some hold on her, some whisper of a new dimension in its puffs of dust sent upward by her fists against its cushions. There was an intensity inherent in everything until, one day, there wasn’t. The blue chair rolled on its wheels to the window when she pushed it. The rising dust was rising dust. And when it was gone, there was only a knot of longing somewhere deep inside of her, a vacant ache: adolescence. Boredom.
It’s why we fall in love, Jenny will tell June.
We fall in love to get back to that dimension, that wonder.
She goes to the laundry room, where, from a pile of clean clothes, she picks out a few articles of June’s, folds them, then goes upstairs to knock on her daughter’s door and tell her that this, this lost doll world, is the reason there is love.”
― Emily Ruskovich,
“He has lost his daughters, but he has also lost the memory of losing them. But he has not lost the loss. Pain is as present in his body as his signature is in his hand. He can sign his name perfectly, but he can’t print it. W, he tries. But the a is impossible without the cursive tilt, the remembered motion of the letter before. He knows his name but can’t see, can’t feel, the separate parts, which are only possible from the inertia of his hand. He knows his grief, too, but its source is also lost without its movement. It is a static thing, unrecognizable, disconnected.”
― Emily Ruskovich,
“How could this word be a party of May’s vocabulary if neither one ever taught her? Just like that, she has deepened. Beneath her blond-white hair are these two new eyes that see what he can’t guess. She is capable of withholding, then revealing. How has she learned to be this new thing that she is? He cups his hand to the back of her head, and holds her close, feeling already that all of it will pass too soon, that she is already becoming her own self, composed of secret knowledge.”
― Emily Ruskovich,
“If only the winter could have opened up to show her it was vulnerable, too.”
― Emily Ruskovich,
“On a sunny fall day, she lay next to him on the ground, and as he dozed she felt his old life, his memories, radiate off his skin. She felt everything leave him but her. She shed her own life, too, to match him. They lay there together like a point in time.” ― Emily Ruskovich,
“When you love someone who has died, and her death disappears because you can’t remember it, what you are left with is merely the pain of something unrequited.” ― Emily Ruskovich,
“It is an agony to eat, but a worse agony to taste that word inside her mouth, its soft, floating first syllable followed by the sharp, metallic second, that little lick, a flicker. Daugh-ter.” ― Emily Ruskovich,
“So many secret, coiled wills, a million centers spiralling out, colliding into a clap of silence that is this very moment in the house, this beautiful oblivion in which they love each other.” ― Emily Ruskovich,
“She became aware of something deep inside of herself, trapped underneath her ordinary love, stale and pungent and faintly sweet and quickly disappearing, like the opening of a forgotten jar inside of which a pet grasshopper has days ago died among its wilted grasses.” ― Emily Ruskovich,
About the book
- Random House, 2017, 320 p. Goodreads
- My rating: 4 stars
- This book was kindly sent to me by Radom House for review.
- I read this book for 20 Books of Summer.