I left my heart in Idaho

Mountain bluebird, fly away

Appaloosa, spotted gray

Western white pine, clothed in snow

The mock orange blossoms in I-da-ho

Idaho

Emily Ruskovich's first novel, Idaho, took out The International DUBLIN Literary Award for 2019. Impressive - she was up against Sally Rooney and Matthias Enard (among others).

Ruskovich has created a powerfully moving novel which treats a terrible event with delicate emotion, linking its protagonists to the land with a permeating theme of music.

Idaho delicately examines how Ann, a second wife, deals with her husband Wade's descent into Alzheimer's disease. As he succumbs, Wade begins to lose the threads of what happened on that fateful day: his wife, Jenny's infanticide of his daughter, May, and the disappearance of their older daughter, June.

p.188 :  "(Ann) can never look right at his disease. It is always in her periphery, pulling at the corners of her understanding. She had never been able to find the right questions, to pin down his illness in a way she can understand. The same old questions come to the surface once again. Does he know he has already brought two little girls into the world? Has fatherhood left him as wholly as his daughters have? It is painful to return to this question all over again...Sometimes she wants to shock him back into his pain, which is better, always better than oblivion."

The book deals with Jenny's motivation for the murder, and the nature of Wade's memory loss. Does it entail the loss of loss?

p.191 : "He has lost his daughters, but he has also lost the memory of losing them. But he has not lost the loss. Pain is as present in his body as his signature is in his hand. He can sign his name perfectly, but he can't print it. W, he tries. But the 'a' is impossible without the cursive tilt, the remembered motion of the letter before. He knows his name but can't see, can't feel the separate parts which are only possible from the inertia of his hand. He knows his grief, too, but its source is also lost without its movement. It is a static thing, unrecognizable, undetected."

The story is told from many points of view, including Jenny, who is in prison for the murder of her daughter, and even the bloodhound that looked for June, who fled the scene.

A music teacher when the events that begin this poignant tale occur, Ann's attempts at understanding events are compelling. She wonders what June would look like if she were still alive as she helps Wade recreate a composite image for the media, at various landmarks of her could-be life. Why does she feel somehow responsible?

Ruskovich's talent lies in language. Idaho is lovingly rendered as a symphony, which in turn evokes a strong sense of place:

p. 255 : "(Ann) hears herself now look into that land, past those signs. She leans into the piano, the music is expectant. The dripping pines are in her moving fingers. The mulchy ground is a major key. And this is the only place she hears lyrics, the words of the two signs themselves: KEEP OFF, says one, loud and distinct amid the trees. And the other - slow and smooth, four gentle notes that dissolve into those trees like a veil of webs - CHILDREN AT PLAY."

Ann reaches into the depths of Wade's early grief with piano lessons. But is the song, and its hint of infidelity unfulfilled, responsible for the murder? 

Ruskovich herself has revealed that it's a song - 'Take your picture off the wall', written by her father - which was the inspiration for the novel. 

Don't be put off by the premise : this is a truly gorgeous and well written story.

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