An increasingly worn copy of Idaho has been circulating through my friend group this winter, like a slow, underground book club. When I was given the book at a party, by a fellow writer, he pressed it into my hands and said, “I have to give this to someone who will read it right now.”
I thought his urgency was a little dramatic until a week later, when I was forcing it upon my husband and friends, desperate to talk to as many other people as possible who had read the story.
It’s hard to discuss Idaho with those who haven’t read it for two reasons. The first is that the book centers on and orbits around a singular, unthinkable, unconscionable action—and that action is a spoiler that I really can’t mention without altering the experience of the book. The second is that the book really feels like an experience—like you’ve been through something and like people who haven’t been through it are standing on the other side of an impossible barrier. I can’t explain it! Just read it! I want to write, though that wouldn’t make for a great book review.
The book is the first novel of Emily Ruskovich, who graduated from the University of Montana before earning an MA in English from the University of New Brunswick and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The daughter of a poet, her writing is lyrical and careful and, above all, original—over and over again, she manages to describe small moments and emotions in ways and with words I’ve never considered before.
In Idaho, she explores ideas of love and memory, sacrifice and punishment and, maybe more than everything else, how we process loss over time. Near the center of the story is Ann, a music teacher who marries an older man who has recently been through a tragedy that cost him his family, and who has started to suffer from the early-onset Alzheimer’s that also took the life of his father. As he loses his memory, Ann is fascinated (and heartbroken and relieved and confused) by how her husband is losing everything: both the joys of being a father and the unbearable sorrow of losing loved ones.
Over the 60 or so years the book covers, writing in close third person perspective, Rushovich enters each of her narrating characters completely and convincingly, from a woman serving life in prison for murder, to a teen heartthrob, to a lonely teacher, to a man who has almost completely lost his ability to remember. Most admirably, she captures the relationship of two sisters, ages 6 and 9, more accurately and beautifully than I have ever seen siblings depicted on the page. She even breaks one of the cardinal rules of creative writing: Never write from the perspective of a dog! And she does it so well I have to share a bit of it to prove it:
“The loose skin of a bloodhound is meant to hold the ground. The ears that drag along the forest floor send the scent up to the skin, where, trapped within its wrinkles and fold, it reminds the hound what the trail is even when it is lost. The smell of the trail becomes the smell of himself, trapped between the wrinkles of the neck and all around the eyes, which require an effort to rise under all that skin. Head down, whatever the dog follows, he follows blind; gravity heaps the forehead down to the top of the snout, so that the scent between the wrinkles is more of a means of seeing than the eyes the wrinkles cover. The heavy ears flopping forward at all times create the walls of the trail, a kind of tunnel and tunnel vision, the tips of the ears stirring up the particles on the ground for the wrinkles to gather and hold.”
But Ruskovich’s greatest strength is her ability to construct theme: Her book is about something larger and more important than the sum of its chapters and scenes, and you can feel it crescendo to the final sentence. She does it on a scale of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, or, more recently, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. She does it so that you are turning pages as fast as you can, even though the book lacks a traditional, action-based plot. She does it so that, when you do read the very last sentence, you find yourself an Idaho evangelical, pressing the book into others’ hands, as I’m pressing it into yours.