‘Negative Space: a Review of Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho’, by Jennifer Down


I think mullein is the bright yellow flower blooming across the cover of Idaho. It’s mentioned several times: it grows on Mount Loeil, the site of the tragedy at the centre of Emily Ruskin’s elegiac debut.

I might be wrong about the cover art. The flowers are stylised; they could be daffodils, though they generally bloom in spring, or prairie-fire, also mentioned in the book, though they’re more reddish than yellow. I looked up mullein cabbage on the internet to see if it symbolised something. I couldn’t find much about that, but it turns out mullein has medicinal reputation dating back to ancient times. “A very gentle herb,” one website advises, mullein has been used as everything from a sedative to an astringent, a remedy for skin and respiratory ailments, and a repellent for evil spirits. “Interestingly enough, often it improves soil, making it good enough for other plants to thrive, and then moves on and quits growing there.”

There are no evil spirits in this book. There are spectres, and there is terrible brutality, but no evil spirits, and so the mullein repels nothing. And so the reader feels the full force of these characters and their actions. Idaho is an evocative meditation on forgiveness, cruelty, and loss.

On an airless summer day, Wade and Jenny drive to a mountain clearing an hour from their home in Ponderosa, Idaho, with their daughters—May, aged six, and June, aged nine—to collect wood. In a stunning and inexplicable act of violence, Jenny kills May with the hatchet she’s been using to hack away at the birch wood. The terrified older child runs into the woods to vanish forever. Jenny is convicted of the murder and sentenced to prison. In the aftermath, Wade remarries Ann, a young English woman and a souvenir of his old life – years ago, before the murder, she’d taught his clumsy hands piano. He started lessons for a functional reason:

“I’ve heard about these studies, that it’s good for your brain?”

She laughed. “Is there something wrong with yours?”

But he looked at her seriously, and she regretted the question, which she had meant as a joke. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “But it runs in my family. I’m just seeing what your prices are, is all.”

It’s dementia that runs in Wade’s family, and he succumbs to it, too, like his father and grandfather. But before all that, he loses his family, marries Ann, and deposits scrapings of memory with her, so that by the time he’s a pitiful middle-aged figure given to sudden spasms of aggression and grief, she is not only the caretaker of his body, but of his story – and Jenny’s, and June’s, and May’s.

Wade’s complicated mix of stoicism and tenderness is reminiscent of Robert Granier in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, who, too, loses his young family. Like Train Dreams, Idaho is firmly anchored in the landscape of the north-western United States, with its punishing, extreme seasons, and lush beauty.

It is a hot, dry day. Ticks crawl all over the brush and Wade crushes them between his thumbnails and wipes the blood – deer blood, coyote – in smears on his jeans. The heat is oppressive, and draws into the dense air a sweet fragrance from the papery birch bark. The flies rise and fall in thin spirals, everywhere. Wade and Jenny can hear the katydids, which sound at times like the popping of a fire.

Moving elegantly between past, present, and future to span fifty years and multiple perspectives, Idaho lets us see as the characters do, but makes no attempt to resolve the unanswerable. Maybe there’s a slight dissonance here. Being privy to so many characters, and across such a sprawling period, makes it seem as though we ought to have all the information we need. And yet Idaho is utterly convincing in the gaps it leaves. Despite—or maybe because of—the range of perspectives we’re afforded, so many questions remain. What, precisely, prompted Jenny to strike the blow that killed her daughter. What happened to June after she fled into the woods. Why Anne feels such a dogged sense of duty toward not only Wade, but Jenny, too.

For this final question an explanation is offered, but one arguably of Ann’s own fearful imagining: that May, having heard her father singing an old song Ann taught him, is humming it that hot August day on the mountain, and when Jenny hears, she knows. “In a girl’s voice, she hears a woman’s. She hears Ann’s.” And enraged, Jenny turns the hatchet on her child. As the reader, this seems like a quantum leap – that Jenny, hearing her six-year-old softly warbling a tune her father practices on the piano, realises that Wade is in love with his music teacher, and snaps. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s not the why of Jenny’s hatchet-blow at all. Ruskovich remains disinterested in answers, and so the reader—like Ann, like Wade, perhaps like Jenny—must draw their own uncertain conclusions.

Ruskovich returns compulsively to the event itself via Ann, who imagines it, reconstituting the afternoon from what she knows. The narrative dilates to include Elizabeth, Jenny’s cellmate; Eliot, June’s teenage crush; Adam, Wade’s father; William and Beth, the couple on whose doorstep Wade arrives, stunned, with his daughter’s lifeless body still in the backseat. Sometimes the perspectives are so peripheral, so fleeting, as to distract from the larger narrative and its key figures. Eliot’s story, especially, feels very much as though it started out as something larger, and was edited down to its eventual slenderness. But the novel doesn’t suffer greatly for it; certainly, Idaho never feels baggy. Ruskovich grafts these disparate perspectives to show the undulating effect of tragedy on a community.

When I wrote a novel in which a character commits suicide, unexpectedly and in the first eight pages of the thing, I was taken aback at how many people were discontented with the unknown: I just wanted to know why she’d done it, they’d say, vaguely uncomfortable or disappointed when I didn’t have an answer. I once mentioned this in passing to my dad. He’s not a big reader, and particularly not of fiction. He’s a welfare coordinator in a school where things like homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental illness are over-represented in the student population, and in the years he’s been there, he’s seen student suicides too many to mention. And almost without exception, the question why keeps tolling long after the event. Sometimes to be at peace is to accept that you’ll never know. That’s life, Dad said, when I told him. Most of the time, you don’t know why.

This is not to say, of course, that we never find any answers; nor is it an excuse for poor plotting or lazy, gap-toothed writing. But that’s not what Ruskovich delivers. She’s an author masterful in omission and shadow. She knows when to let silence tell the story. She returns to the same scenes, the same symbols, with a subtle eye. Her prose is lean but forceful.

A cursory Google search sees Idaho often described as a ‘literary thriller’, which surprised me. Sure, there are mysteries, but they remain unsolved, and the interrogation is of human relationships, of tension and frailty. Where Ruskovich could easily have focused her attention on Ann and Wade, she examines, with equal precision and sympathy, the relationship between cellmates Elizabeth and Jenny; between wives Ann and Jenny; between sisters May and June. The three-year age gap suddenly vast as the older sister teeters on puberty. The tearing, desperate love of the younger one:

May wants both to please her and to irritate her; she wants to surrender and rebel; she wants to be this June and to worship her and to claw her down to the old June’s level all at once, claw her down with her fingernails, which are sharp. Like a fox’s teeth. Just last week she plunged them into the new June’s arm. … June’s boundaries seem beyond her; she herself hovers in the air above her skin in the form of that almost electric smell. It is not the smell of her dirty skin, or lake hair, or the boiled milk on her breath at night. But something underneath.

Smothered, all of it. So much of Idaho’s grief lies in this: the negative space, what could have been. High summer. Two children bobbing side-by-side in metal garbage cans filled with water, bickering, laughing, plotting, the bright possibilities of their lives unspooling endlessly before them.

Jennifer Down is a writer, editor and translator, and the author of Our Magic Hour. Her second book, a short story collection titled Pulse Points, will be published in 2017.