Author: Emily Ruskovich

Publisher: Random House

ISBN: 978-0-399-59121-1

A friend of mine told me that Emily Ruskovich's first novel, Idaho, was the best book she'd read in a year. Because my friend reads widely and is a writer herself, I took that as high praise and read the book

I'm not sure Idaho is the best book I've read in a year (I'm still recovering from Rachel Cusk's Transit), but it is powerful and deserves to be read widely by thoughtful readers. And while I don't usually do this—I don't look at other reviews before I write my own—in this case I'm making an exception because the first one-start review on Amazon today is a good place to start this commentary.

The woman writes: "Dark, depressing, hopeless, grim, jumps from person to person without character development, long passages that you get lost in, no closure on anything. Impossible for me to see anything redeeming about this book." Consider yourself warned.

She is correct; Idaho is not a happy book. One main character, Ann, is married to Wade who has terminal Alzheimer's and the disease causes him to do—allows him the freedom to do—abusive acts. 

Wade's first wife, Jenny, is serving a life sentence in prison for killing 12-year-old May, their younger daughter. The day of the murder, 16-year-olds June, their older daughter disappeared. 

So we have an inexplicable death . . .  a man who has lost two children and his wife and is now losing his memories . . .  a woman who does not understand her act on a sunny summer afternoon when the family was gathering firewood for the winter . . . Jenny's cellmate who is damaged in her own way . . . and Ann, twenty years younger than Wade, someone who was born in Idaho but who grew up in England, a singer and music teacher, someone who falls in love with Wade and tells him:

       "I could take care you you," she said softly. She was very surprised to hear herself say this, but even so her voice was caml, as if she had been intending to say it all along. Bur really it was the only time that such a thing had occurred to her and the words escaped her to quietly that she wondered at first if he had even heard. As she waited to find out, dozens of blackbirds, startled at nothing, rose off the telephone wire at once. Ann and Wade watched them converge and scatter like a handful of black sand thrown against the sky.

     After a long time he said, "It wouldn't be right."

The Amazon critic is also correct that the narrative moves from character to character, but few readers will have trouble knowing whose point of view we're following at the moment. I don't understand or agree with her complaint that there is no character development. By the end of novel everyone has changed, although, to be fair, not every question has been answered or loose end tied off (a compliment).

Some readers complain about that the chronology is confusing. Ruskovich numbers the chapters by the year in which the main action takes place (there are also flashbacks within chapters): 2004, 2008, 1985-1986, 1995, 2006, 1999, 1971, 1995, 2007, 1995, 2008-2009, 2009, 1973, 2010-2011, 2009, 2012, 2012-2024, 1995, 2024, May 2025, 1995, July 2025, 1995, August 2025. In other words, the novel's story stretches from 1973 to August 2025. It strikes me as gutsy to play with time the way Ruskovich does (I can imagine an editor complaining, "Why can't you just tell a straightforward story?") and a tour de force to advance the action into 2025.

This is Ruskovich's first novel; her short stories have appeared in literary magazines and she was a 2015 O. Henry Award winner. She grew up in the mountains of northern Idaho so when she writes about the landscape, the small towns, the brutal winters, and the black flies of summer she's writing from the inside. I have only one nit to pick: In the prisons in which I've taught, the prisoners call solitary "Going into the shoo"—the SHU, segregated housing unit—not Lock. But maybe "Lock" is the term they would use in the fictional Sage Hill Women's Correctional Center.

I would not say Idaho is the best book I've read all year. I will say it is one of the best books I've read all year. Sophisticated readers who want a rewarding and moving experience will enjoy it.