Sometimes you come across a debut so striking that it leaves you wondering how the author’s second novel can possibly match it. It’s already happened to me once this year with Jennifer Down’s compassionate, clear-eyed and lovely Our Magic Hour. Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is very different but equally impressive, both in its writing and its treatment of a difficult subject: Down’s novel explores the effect of a friend’s suicide on a group of young people while Ruskovich’s looks at the murder of a young child in the most shocking of circumstances. It comes garlanded with praise from the likes of Andrea Barrett, Chinelo Okparanta and Claire Fuller, all thoroughly deserved.
One hot August day, Wade and Jenny Mitchell take their two girls off to gather wood for their winter store. They’re an unremarkable family, facing life’s difficulties as best they can. Six-year-old May and nine-year-old June have had only themselves for company in their remote mountain home but June no longer wants to play the elaborate games that have kept them whispering together for years. Jenny quietly notes May’s unhappiness and June’s withdrawal, aware that her eldest daughter is already conceiving passions for boys. Wade has been taking piano lessons in a vain attempt to stave off the early onset dementia that has struck several generations of the Mitchell family, taught by the music teacher at June’s school. The afternoon they set out in their pickup to collect wood will end with an appalling crime which will leave one child dead and the other missing. Wade will divorce Jenny, later marrying Ann, his piano teacher, who will find herself constantly speculating about what happened that afternoon and why, unable to talk to Wade about it or to fathom what he might remember of that dreadful day as his memory fades.
Ruskovich’s novel crisscrosses the years, from Jenny’s first pregnancy to 2025 when she and Ann finally meet, smoothly shifting its point of view throughout. Each character, from the main protagonists to those who only make the briefest of appearances, is skilfully rounded in their depth and complexity. The storytelling is engrossing – there’s a slow reveal which makes me a little reluctant to go into too much detail – but it’s the writing which is most striking, managing to be both spare and vibrant in what is essentially a dark novel: Ann and Wade ‘made love under the scratchy wool blanket, found surprise in each other’s ordinariness, safety in each other’s pleasure’; ‘Winter was far away, a mere superstition, already defeated in their minds by the county’s plows that had been promised would come’ sums up prairie-dwelling Wade and Jenny’s dangerous inexperience of mountain winters while ‘Outside the coyotes’ howls bore tunnels through the frozen silence’ vividly conveys their reality. Ruskovich explores the aftermath of the devastating crime with compassion and humanity, defying expectations with her characters’ kindness in the most difficult of circumstances. There’s no black and white here, no neat resolution: questions remain unanswered and it’s all the better for that. Barely two months into the year and I already have two debuts on my awards wishlist.