In the middle of summer, somewhere on a forested mountain in the wilderness of Idaho, without warning or provocation, a mother kills her six-year-old daughter May with the swift, unanticipated swipe of a hatchet. May’s sister, eight-year-old June, “terrified of what is possible now”, turns and flees deep into the trees. The girls’ father, Wade, is stunned – one moment, one act of unimaginable violence, and his life implodes; each of his family lost to him: Jenny to a life sentence for murder; May six feet under; and June missing without a trace.
It’s a set-up that reads straight out of the darkest of psychological thrillers, the rural surroundings – the seasonal changes of which Emily Ruskovich uses to great effect, from sticky summer days to long, lonely snowed-in winters – reminiscent of the mysteries of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, but what Ruskovich actually does with her material is decidedly more daring.
Why? That morning, Jenny dressed her little girl in long pants. She knew that while she and Wade chopped the wood they were collecting, the girls would be tumbling around in the long grass. She was “worried about her child getting snakebitten or sunburned the very day she killed her”. What makes an otherwise sweet-tempered, loving mother do such a thing?
Readers looking for answers will be disappointed, but Idaho is a much better novel because of what Ruskovich doesn’t tell us. Its subject is the murky ground that must be navigated after the fall of the blade, “the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone”: a landscape of loss, grief, punishment, and perhaps even redemption. It’s also a story about the permutations of memory. As Wade loses his, falling prey to the same early dementia that killed his father before him, his second wife, Ann, becomes the gatekeeper of his past. Although Ruskovich utilises a chorus of voices to tell this tale, which spans more than half a century – from murderer through victim, players with only walk-on parts, even the ruminations of the bloodhound initially set on June’s trail that fateful day in the forest – it’s Ann who provides the central consciousness of the novel, a host to memories that are and aren’t hers, following “a secret trail of lost images, real and imagined”.
That an act of such brutality inspires storytelling as beautiful as this is reason enough for this debut novel to stand out from the crowd. To discover the sheer exquisiteness of Ruskovich’s prose is an unforeseen added bonus, one that confirms the distinctiveness of her talent. There’s a rare, rich plangent quality to her sentences, as present in the spaces between the words, in what’s not said, as much as in what is articulated. As when Jenny, after weekly poetry classes in prison, suddenly realises that a new language is available to her, “the language between words”. Meaning – and if not forgiveness itself, something akin to it – we learn, can also be found in absences, in silences, and in not knowing.
‘Idaho’ by Emily Ruskovich is published by Chatto & Windus, £14.99