Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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“How easily we come apart. 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.”

Each character in this quietly violent novel seeps in through the reader’s pores. The story begins with Ann in 2004 explaining that her husband Wade and his ex-wife Jenny never drove the truck except once or twice a year to collect firewood, and her life with Wade follows that same pattern. Something soured in that truck, something violently beyond reason. Much of what happens horrifies and perplexes in equal amounts. Ann seems to live with the ghost of Jenny and the tragedy that occurred more than she lives with Wade’s waxing and waning mind, trying to understand his past before his memory is eclipsed. The men in Wade’s family suffer a form of dementia, and the incidents she suffers at his hands are humiliatingly cruel, and yet one feels sorry for Wade, as much as Ann. Not all ‘ghosts’ in a person’s life are in the ground.

What happened to June and May, Wade and Jenny’s beautiful daughters? The what we understand with shocking clarity, the why is a fog. The literary prose is gorgeous, and plants bitter seeds inside the mind of the reader. Ann is a music teacher, someone a song connects to the horror that happened on a tragic day. There is something heartbreaking about the bits and pieces left behind by Wade’s wife and children, as if they refuse to be erased. “Because Wade had thrown everything away- drawings, clothes, toys- each accidental remnant loomed in Anne’s mind with unspeakable importance. Four moldy dolls buried in the sawdust of a rotten stump. A high-heeled Barbie shoe that fell from the drainpipe. A neon toothbrush in a doghouse.”  These little ‘treasures’ that pop up like cruel hellos from the past is such a tender spot in the novel, links to stories that should have remained in Wade’s head‘ . Ann becomes a keeper of the stories, ones she doesn’t truly understand, memories too painful for Wade to tell, memories that are dying with his early-onset dementia.  IN a sense, his dementia is a gift, to blot out tragedy. Ann is haunted by Jenny as much as she is by Wade’s children. “Even the raspberry bushes that Ann didn’t plant. For a long time they came back every year to haunt her..” 

I spent much of the novel mystified. Why?  Why can’t always be understood, there are dark corners in a life that remain inexplicable. Jenny is elsewhere and we meet Elizabeth through her. Elizabeth equally horrifies and mystifies the reader, her life before, her actions are splintered and leave the reader spinning. There are gentle moments, beautiful interactions between the sisters May and June. As one slowly shucks off her childhood, the youngest feels shattered and rejected but there are moments June is the ‘old’ June that was a fun sister, who played dolls with May. June’s childhood now lives on in its vivid paralysis.” It happens to all of us, this paralysis… this moment in time that is frozen and far from us. There are glimpses of happiness, as much as the tender heartbreak of a mother who watches over and mourns for her  eldest shucking off her youth ,which makes what has happened all the more confusing. From the student Ann was moved by, to prisoners with their own murky pasts, everyone seems to connect and yet you don’t get the answers, much as Wade’s mind slowly runs through his fingers, so too does explanation. There are holes in everything. What does a song mean in a horrific moment? Is the song to blame? We just won’t know.

There are things Wade mentions that make no sense to Ann but as we sift through his memories, the reader knows. Jenny and Wade’s love story is told through snippets of the past, everything is a tug of war from past to present to future. Jenny and Ann are tied, forever tied, and may be married to the horrors of the past and each other through Wade. This debut has left me reeling, unraveled, angry with tender spots in my heart. I was angry, I wanted to shake certain characters into a coma! I didn’t want to understand or feel sympathy. Everything was unexpected, and left my heart raw. Idaho is one of the most moving and depressing literary fiction debuts I have ever read but to dissect why I felt as I did would give away the story. Who knew piano music could be tangled in such a tragedy. Gorgeously stunning debut!

Publication Date: January 3, 2017

Random House Publishing Group, Random House

 

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