Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho Book Review Idaho [2017] – ★★1/2

Emily Ruskovich’s debut is a strange book. Idaho alludes to some accident which happened sometime in the past in the woods of Idaho. That accident involved a family of four: Wade, Jenny and their two daughters, May and June. Jumping timelines, Ruskovich paints an unsettling picture of one family broken apart. Years after the incident, Wade suffers from memory loss, and it is up to his new wife Ann “to retrace the memory steps”. If this sounds vague and confusing, it is because it is supposed to. Idaho is an almost experimental novel, in which the author uses the evocative language to shed light on the nature of memory, loss, grief and guilt. Though her attempt is admirable, the book is also very problematic: if the beginning is promising, the book soon morphs into a frustrating read, and the ending borders on pointlessness. 

The book’s rural setting gives it some otherworldly quality, and Idaho starts well, intriguingly, alluding to some mystery at the heart of the plot – a crime which happened in the woods some time previously while the Mitchell family was collecting firewood. Ann, Wade’s second wife, now has to deal with the consequences of this still unsolved mystery. The puzzle is interesting at the start, and we slowly uncover things and details that initially did not make much sense to us. It is as though we did not see the full picture initially, and we slowly unravel fragments of someone’s lost memory. Ruskovich’s language is certainly effective in painting a dream landscape through which her characters wonder, in search of something – answers or maybe forgiveness. The plot itself is dreamy, evoking characters’ feelings, and both happy and painful fragments of their past. In Idaho, characters [are] “lost in [their] imagining” [Ruskovich, 2017: 47], feeling presence of others [2017: 24], and their recall of events is disjointed [2017: 51]. They are [also] “struggling to understand; to find the missing piece that is each other” [Ruskovich, 2017: 57]. If Wade, once a loving husband to his ex-wife Jenny, “finds himself now inside of [the] fog, unable to see past it” [Ruskovich, 2017: 125], “Ann’s life…has followed…a secret trail of lost images, real and imagined” [2017: 106].

The issue is that Idaho is so busy “evoking things” and sensations, and jumping timelines, that it forgets its rationale, its raison d’etre, the so-called mystery at the novel’s heart and even characters’ motivations, i.e. the reason why many readers continued reading this book to its very end, wanting some resolution or explanation. After a promising beginning, the book starts to veer off course, introducing almost unrelated characters, events and even additional stories (how the state of Idaho got its name), while, at the same time, hectically time-travelling. We can find ourselves reading about something that happened in 1999 only to jump back to the year 1973 and then from there find ourselves trying to follow the events that happened in 2025. There will be paragraphs and even pages in this book which one has to find uninteresting, and, soon, Ruskovich’s lyricism can hardly salvage what she has already started – a plummet into an incomprehensible and confusing series of events and characters (their motivations and actions). Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel A Pale View of Hills [1982], Ruskovich assumes that it is easy for readers to ascribe hidden, fantastical meaning to a story which is as ordinary and realistic as they come without providing to those readers any clues, hints or an explanation.

It is not quite enough to employ evocative, beautiful language that barely hints at some mystery, eeriness or memories almost forgotten. A book has to have a plan or a main idea, and aimless Idaho reads like an almost pointless piece of fiction wrapped in a dreamy evocatively-worded prose that only contributes to the book’s incoherence and repetitiveness. The book evokes things, yes, but also evokes too much of the same. Idaho is like a calm pond of inconsequential memories that suddenly start to flood your brain, and you will not care to remember any of them.

11 thoughts on “Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

  1. C’est un livre étrange qui ne donne pas toutes les réponses à nos questions.. on peut se sentir frustré mais j’ai trouvé le style d’écriture admirable et l’histoire des plus touchante. J’ai adoré mais c’est très subjectif bien sûr. Bon weekend Diana 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not a huge fan of experimental novels, so I’m not surprised that this book went downhill quickly. I find when authors try to experiment, sometimes they break rules without understanding why the rules are there to begin with (like to increase clarity). It’s unfortunate that this book wasn’t better, because the premise sounds interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with you about experimental novels. I hoped until the end that Ruskovich’s risk-taking would pay off, but it never did. This is a pity.

      Liked by 1 person

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