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Mar 09

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Oh Idaho, you are one shattering novel.

It’s a gentle shattering like a child tapping on the shell of a boiled egg. There’s no single punch to the gut but rather a gradual build-up that leaves you devastated. At the heart of the novel – and revealed early in the book – is the death of a six-year-old girl at the hands of her mother. But that isn’t what devastates. Rather it’s Ruskovich’s almost tender exploration of the years preceding and those that follow this one unimaginable moment.

In a way that’s both frustrating and yet fitting for a novel about forgiveness (not redemption) and love, Ruskovich never truly provides us with the details of what happened on that fateful day. We get snippets of information from Wade, the husband, who witnesses the after effects of the crime, but not the crime itself. When we meet Wade, now remarried to music teacher Ann, we discover that he’s suffering from early onset dementia, which is erasing what memories he does have of that day (not that he was ever chatty about it). We know that Wade and his wife – Jenny – were chopping and cleaning and collecting birch wood. We know that their daughters, Jenny and May, were horsing around as their parents worked, arguing and singing and swatting flies. And we know that Jenny took a break from all that birch in the front seat of the ute, that she was joined by May and that moments later, with the hatchet she used to clean the logs, Jenny murdered her youngest child. In the ensuing madness and horror her oldest daughter, June, ran into the woods never to be seen again.

The rest of Idaho is only partly about untangling that one irrational, violent, shocking moment. This is not a crime novel, or a psychological thriller with a startling reveal that exonerates Jenny or brings May (somehow) back from the dead. Rather it’s a character piece exploring the mental-state, the make-up, the motivations of Jenny and Wade from their perspective and that of others like Ann or Jenny’s cellmate Elizabeth who are drawn into their lives. Ruskovich achieves this by pushing the narrative forward and backward in time – the first meeting between Wade and Jenny… Ann’s initial encounter with Wade and his request that she teach him to play piano… June and May’s relationship days before the crime occurred… and forward in time… Jenny’s time in prison and her relationship and eventual friendship with Elizabeth… Ann caring for a gradually fading Wade… and in among these moments… vignettes dealing with the lives of people touched – even briefly – by the crime… the boy who June had a crush on… the old couple who first come across Wade, and his wife and their dead daughter – and it’s all presented to us in the most gorgeous, compassionate prose. There are no hard edges here. And no easy answers either.

For all the weightiness of the subject matter and the tragedy that shadows each sentence this isn’t a difficult book to read. Ruskovich’s brilliant control of language and her capacity to draw sympathetic characters makes for a novel that’s hard to let go of even while slowly, but surely, it tap, tap, taps away at your emotions.

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