The title says, “Idaho – A Novel”. I think the last bit is an assertion of intent meant to guide people like me who reach the end of the book knowing that I’d read something wonderful but not really being able to label it.
Each chapter in “Idaho” is a work of art. Emily Ruskovich can write in a way that makes you fully aware of how a particular person is experiencing something that is vivid and immediate but also ladened with context and possibility.
At one point she even helped me see inside the head of a bloodhound on a search, head down, ears and folds of skin dampening all other stimuli except the hundreds of scents that contain the one scent I am looking for.
It seemed to me, that for much of the novel, I had become that bloodhound and that each chapter was a scrap of fabric, soaked in sorrow, confusion, regret, guilt, love and, occasionally hope, that I would bend over and sniff at until I had extracted every scent of emotion and traced the trails of circumstance, intent, memory and consequence that connect the chapters and the people in them.
It is an intense, absorbing experience that speaks to my senses and my emotions but, by itself, does not satisfy my need for a narrative leading to some form of release. The nonlinear nature of this narrative, the emphasis on moments of being and intense but bounded insights into a person, meant that reading “Idaho” felt more like experiencing other people’s lives than it did reading a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. I was given lots of hard, emotionally taxing questions but I was offered only the inference of answers, much as I am in real life.
There is a narrative. It is triggered by an act of violence that changes the lives of almost all of the characters in the book. Revealing this narrative in a non-linear way is not done to enhance the tension or to build to a great reveal, but to show that we are not the events that we live through. They can harm us or help us but the self we bring to each moment is what shapes the outcome of an event.
I’m sorry if that sounds obscure. Emily Ruskovich would never say anything so clumsily as that. It is merely me, trying to find meaning in what I was reading.
In “Idaho” I spent time seeing the world through the eyes of many people: May, a six year old girl living an isolated rural life in which her most intense relationship is with June, her older sister, whom she simultaneously loves and resents; Elizabeth, spending her life in prison for murder and trying to allow herself friendship and perhaps even love; Jenny, a woman who is trying to abnegate her right to anything she desires but who cannot stop herself from offering something of herself to others; Wade, a man who has survived tragedy and guilt and love but who is losing himself with each memory that slips out of reach; and Anne, who falls lives a life of sorrow-filled love that she does not feel entitled to cut herself free from.
I will remember these people for a long time. I will remember their joys and their pain and their ability to survive as long as they are remembered by someone, even if it is only themselves. I will remember the mountain they lived on and how its wildness and isolation and unforgiving winters shaped them like wind eroding sandstone.
Yet I still struggle with “Idaho” as “a novel”. Probably this says more about my expectations than about Emily Ruskovich’s writing but it changed my experience of the book. If “Idaho” had been a collection of short stories, I’d have gone, “How wonderful. This is like reading Alice Munro” but it was labelled a novel so I found myself expecting more connection.
The best example of what I mean is a character in this book, a young man who loses his leg through an accident in high school, whose experiences and thoughts are beautifully described but who seems to have only the most tangential connection to the other people in the book. I invested my imagination in him. I didn’t like him but I began to understand him. Yet I couldn’t make him fit and my inability to do so, distracted and annoyed me.
I strongly recommend this book, novel or not. The writing is simply wonderful. The experiences are harrowing but in a way that made me more empathetic than horrified.
I am astonished that this is Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel. I look forward to reading everything else that she writes.
I listened to the audiobook version of “Idaho” which is read with consummate skill by Justine Eyre. She helped my bloodhound follow the scent trails in this book much more easily and with more passion than I had only read the text.
I’ve included below an extract of her performance and a short interview where she talks about her experience in narrating “Idaho”