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book review

Rural Idaho family implodes after senseless murder of child by her mother

‘Idaho,’’ Emily Ruskovich’s haunting debut novel, hangs on the inexplicable. Its subject is the thoughtless, almost accidental violence that is dealt us by life and the possibility of living with decency and grace inside those psychic wounds.

Ostensibly, “Idaho’’ is the story of a murder. Ann, a piano teacher born in Idaho but raised in England, is the reader’s guide through the destruction of her husband Wade’s first family: the killing of his 6-year-old daughter, May, by his ex-wife, Jenny, followed by his older daughter June’s disappearance and Jenny’s imprisonment. To Ann, the act itself seems senseless, a mystery. “Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention,” she thinks. “No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.” But Ann, whose very marriage is built on the absence that Jenny’s act created, finds herself obsessed with Jenny’s motivations.

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The novel begins long after the tragedy when Ann and Wade, living on the fictional Mount Iris in Idaho in the home Wade had shared with Jenny and the girls, have already been married eight years. Jenny is serving a life sentence. Wade, meanwhile, has started to show signs of early-onset dementia, so even as Ann revisits the August day of the murder, piecing together its bones from the fragments she’s gleaned and clothing it in details borrowed from her own life, Wade’s unanchored mind leads him to react, sometimes violently, to a pain he no longer understands. Ann takes on the nearly futile search for the missing June, adopting the unhealed scars of Wade’s former life as her own.

Ruskovich’s prose is immensely seductive, drawing the reader into a narrative that defies easy resolution. The first section unfolds tautly, as though it were a short story onto which the rest of the novel was built in a search for explanation. The subsequent short sections, which move back and forth over 50 years and in and out of various points of view (the two little girls, Jenny, her cellmate, a local boy, even a bloodhound), fill in the gaps of the central mystery and meander, sometimes very far, away from it.

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But within each section, there are sharp, clear moments of psychological observation. In one, Jenny remembers how her own childhood ended, the way she sees June’s ending now: “[F]or the first several years of her life . . . [e]ven something as ordinary as the blue rolling chair in her father’s office had some hold on her, some whisper of a new dimension in its puffs of dust sent upward by her fists against its cushions. There was an intensity inherent in everything until, one day there wasn’t . . . [T]here was only a knot of longing somewhere deep inside of her, a vacant ache: adolescence. Boredom. ‘It’s why we fall in love,’ Jenny will tell June.”

The novel is atmosphere as much as it is story. Ruskovich finds a kind of severe beauty in these woods, in trash heaps hidden in the trees, in the burdensome heat of summer, in dripping pines and the smell of wood smoke, in the whine of horseflies and fingers sticky with lemonade. True to its name, this is a novel of place: The characters lives pass almost secondarily, less in what they do than in the private unraveling of their thoughts and dreams within this brilliantly specific rural northwestern landscape.

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Without offering an explanation for the murder at her novel’s heart, Ruskovich strays toward a sort of forgiveness predicated on broken hearts “whole enough to know they can break.” This, too, is grounded in “something beyond all their lives,” in “something in the rocks and soil and the smells of the trees, a reaching arm, a trailing hand.” In a family marred irreparably by violence, “Idaho’’ finds the ability to continue living by making a home in what is right before our eyes, in those details of life and land that remain, regardless.

IDAHO

By Emily Ruskovich

Random House, 308 pp., $27


Jenny Hendrix is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her work has appeared in publications including The Believer, The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Boston Review, among other publications.