A small decision, made without thought of any possible repercussions, after all how could a song end in tragedy, haunts the life of Ann in Emily Ruskovich’s stunning debut, Idaho. Isolated with nothing but history, a deteriorating husband and the time to constantly be their prisoner, Ann struggles to find the truth, the meaning in her life that she is positive she loves but maybe isn’t so sure she signed up for. Equally imprisoned, both literally and figuratively is Jenny, Ann’s husband’s ex-wife, who scrubs floors for decades trying to escape a fleeting moment that resulted in a great tragedy she can never be forgiven for. This is the story we get, between these two women, their lives forever connected, one trying to understand, the other trying to forget.
Ruskovich’s Idaho (and Idaho) is an isolated place, way up north, set on a mountain side where the lives of lovers tangle and untangle. It’s a place where two young girls never escape, suspended in small moments that lead up to unresolved timelines that capture everyone in the hills, surrounded by various creatures, never-ending forest and the occasional discarded objects. It seems unnavigable, hostile even and perhaps it is not the actions of the players that leads them to tragedy but the unforgiving earth that forces them to their end. It’s almost impossible to think anything good could have come of life in this landscape, a judgement I cast with uncertainty. But this mountainside, twice filled with a man’s love for his family only ends in tears, with no one else to help absorb them nor the wave of sadness that is brought by death. Despite its lush and fertile land, the mountain that keeps this family holds nothing but death.
What makes this book so stunning, so worth my short precious time before I run out the door this morning, exhausted from lack of sleep but invigorated none the less, is the turn of words, the phrases that pieced my heart, the small moments where I sighed and paused and whispered “damn” under my breath in coffee shops and classrooms, trying desperately not to be audible, but too moved not to express something. Many books are described as being so good you can’t put them down, but for Idaho it is so good, so chilling, so sad and moving that you have to put it down. You have to find space from these lives, the lives the characters must endure, in order to move forward. A reprieve is necessary from time to time so that through the long haul you will want to finish. Thankfully, Ruskovich unwraps the story slowly at first with long passages and heaps of memories before blasting away with smaller, more devastating fragments of memory and time.
Every moment in Idaho seems subdued, despite the rich language and exemplary detail. It feels that way because the violence and horror and heartbreak are all too well pronounced. They don’t just sit heavily over the lives entangled and undone in the story, the weigh in the heart of the reader with every turn of the page. The big moments are vivid only in that they break, for a small moment the despair and uncertainty that each player must carry through their lives. I would not have expected the shot in the arm American Literature needed would come from such a tame voice, but Ruskovich’s work here is a truly American novel, finding the small, isolated places we all live, no matter where we might be located. It knows that one instance can change everything, but the likelihood of having the foresight to see it coming is damn near impossible.