By Jennifer Levasseur
My faith in fiction has surged after reading many accomplished first novels these last two years, so I’ve been on the lookout for 2017’s crop of debuts, those that might be overlooked with so many favorites—George Saunders, Paul Auster, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Roxane Gay—releasing new works. Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho received the kind of pre-publication publicity that writers dream about (Sacred Trespasses also included the novel in our What to Read in Early 2017), and it lives up to the hype: Idaho is a beautifully written, meditative yet suspenseful story of a woman who has always been cautiously obsessed with her husband’s first family, which includes two missing daughters, one dead and the other whose whereabouts remain unknown.
Years after the shocking event that scattered the close family, Ann and Wade live alone on the same secluded Idaho mountain. Wade has hidden or destroyed most remnants of his former family, but Ann discovers wisps of them over the years: a half-drawn portrait drawn in Jenny’s hand, a buried doll, the gloves Wade had worn on the day his daughters were lost to him. Now that the early onset dementia that runs in his family is settling on Wade, Ann can wait no longer to understand those people whose home she lives in, those ghost figures her husband loves so much that he cannot speak their names.
When she can get away from the house without Wade noticing, Ann visits his disused truck to reach back to the event that destroyed a family and opened the path to her own marriage:
"Nine years ago, when Wade was still married to Jenny and both of his daughters were still alive, a mouse had crawled along the top of the truck’s exhaust pipe into the engine compartment, and built its nest on the manifold. She thinks of how strange it is that Wade probably remembers that mouse, remembers the sound of it skittering under the hood, and yet he’s forgotten his first wife’s name. Or so it seems sometimes. But the mouse—the mouse is still very much alive in his memory. … That mouse had probably been in the truck the whole winter, during that last year that Wade was married to Jenny, that last year that May was alive and June was safe."
Idaho shifts around through time and point of view, but it always circles back to the questions of what we can understand about motives (our own and those of others), about whether we’re always in control of our own facilities, and whether it’s possible or even desirable to atone for the losses we cause. It’s a riveting read about human frailty, loss, how we keep the lost alive in memory, and what it means to move forward after catastrophe.