Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich

Calling a book a haunting meditation on time, memory and grief is pretty much damning it with faint praise in this publishing climate. Everyone’s written one. Grieving and melancholy seem to be in fashion these days, much as moon boots were in the ‘80s. And yet, Emily Ruskovich’s new novel Idaho is all of these things at once. It meditates. It grieves. It remembers. And boy, does it haunt.

It’s 1995, a hot August day in the mountains above Ponderosa, Idaho. Jenny has just killed one of her two daughters. The other is missing, never to be found again.

2004. Jenny’s husband, Wade, has remarried. Ann, his new wife, lives in a house with a gaping wound at its heart. Wade’s behaviour is becoming strange and violent. His mind is slowly slipping away as dementia makes its early onslaught.

2008. Jenny has been in prison for thirteen years. She is set to spend two lifetimes in there. She has just left a month in solitary confinement for stabbing Sylvia, her former cellmate and her only friend. She speaks to no one. She does not step outside. She punishes herself for her senseless acts of violence more than any prison could.

Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho, by Emily Ruskovich

The echoes of Jenny’s actions echo throughout the book, resounding in its past, its present, and its future. The absence of May and June, the two daughters, is a suffocating one — as solid and suffocating as the walls of Jenny’s prison. It’s an absence that informs every action that every character takes, every word that they speak, every thought that they have. Ann spends her days getting face-fits of June made up, as she ages. But as she ages, the chances of finding her slip away, as do Wade’s memories of his daughters.

Knives are a big thing in Idaho — Wade is a subsistence farmer, but makes a buck or two crafting intricate knives out of wood and bone and steel — and Ruskovich’s prose cuts like one. Idaho, Ruskovich’s first novel, is a psychologically acute work of psychic anguish, which traces the fragments of a family split open by a single act of unspeakable violence, scattered across America and through the decades. There might be rather a lot of meditations on time, memory and grief, but  this one promises to haunt like little else.

Emily Ruskovich, Idaho, Chatto & Windus (London: 2017)

Chatto & Windus generously provided me with a review copy of Idaho.

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