Sunday, 26 February 2017

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is a haunting debut. The novel has at its heart an act of incomprehensible violence, an act that leaves one child dead, and another missing. This single act devastates a family. Ann, our eyes and ears in this story, is the second wife of Wade, who is battling dementia. As Wade loses his memory she navigates us through his life, and that of Jenny - his first wife - and their two children, May and June. She is the keeper of the secrets, of the history of this family and all that has befallen them. Some memories she pieces together, others she re-imagines, coming to a place in her own life where she is the bearer of this sadness, the person that holds the responsibility for attempting to redeem the family, as well as herself.
Wade's dementia is a cruel genetic inheritance, one that has taken both his father and grandfather early in their lives. He feels it creeping up on him, but he is unable to delay it despite his efforts to escape from it both physically, by moving from the plains to the mountains, and mentally, by learning the piano (from the local school's music teacher, Ann), and, as it advances, his memories of the children fade but his feelings of grief and anger intensify and confuse him. An anger that shows itself in violent outbursts, often placing Ann in danger, followed by wallowing regret. 
As the story continues, Ann becomes more fully focussed on the missing child, who would now be a young woman, and the role of the mother in this tragedy. Piecing together snippets of information, day-dreaming in the truck parked beyond the house, coming across small mementos of the past, leads Ann to strike up a covert connection with Jenny. This unusual bond between the two women formed in an environment of guilt, loss and a desire for redemption is strikingly affecting. 
Rushovich's writing is rich and descriptive - the heat bears down with its itch-making insects, the snow deadens their lives, engulfing the humans who live on the mountain in a cloak of silent threat. Place, in this novel, not only acts as a catalyst for damage but is also a metaphor for the psychological landscape. The attention to small details and glimpses of perspective build a textured canvas, which both reveals and conceals. This is a novel that will stay with you, and, while gruelling in parts, although never grotesque, it is a fascinating portrayal of how people make new landscapes, both real and imagined, from their personal tragedies, and their desire to outlive their trauma. 
{Reviewed by STELLA}

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