“Horrifying and hopeful at the same time”: Kim Hill reviews Idaho, one of the most acclaimed novels of 2017.
A couple of years ago, I was visiting my father’s side of the family in Northern Ireland. As a shy, unhappy English child, I would spend holidays with them. I found them exotic, intimidating, irresistibly attractive. My father’s siblings were fully-functioning adults, their children….my cousins…were open and funny. I wanted their lives. I wanted to be one of them.
When I went back this recent time, I persuaded my aunt to take me to the house where she and my uncle and my father had grown up. I’d stayed there with my grandparents. The house, of course, was much smaller than the quasi-mansion of my memory, and the big monkey-puzzle tree was gone. The current owner took me to an old barn and showed me a plank of wood on which my father had carved his name. H. J. Hill. Before he grew up and left home and was taken by life.
When I saw it, I felt glad and grief-stricken at the same time.
Idaho made me think about all that. It’s about that shifty emotional universe of memory, and about the necessity of memory for a fulfilled life. The central event is this: Wade, his wife Jenny and their two young daughters drove out one autumn day to collect wood. Everything was fine, and then it wasn’t: one of the children died that day, Wade’s family was destroyed. He is now married to Ann, and he’s losing his mind, his memories, to early-onset dementia. It runs, he has told her, in the family.
We also learn that Ann is something of a saint. When Wade feels she has transgressed by reminding him of past pain that he no longer comprehends (“it’s the texture of his memories, not the feeling, that is gone”) he treats her like an errant dog, incidents of controlled violence beyond his control. “She took note of what provoked him, and made sure never to do those things again.”
Ann is determined to find out why Wade’s daughter May died that day and what happened to her elder sister June. Her motivations are complex: she loves Wade and wants to salvage as much of his past as she can, because he’s fading fast. A lonely, deracinated young woman, she marries Wade along with his ghostly family. She wants his life, all of it. Her own family history is missing in action. She was born in Idaho, moved to England when she was three, and returned to a place she had no memory of. In order to make a life, she needs a history and memories, even if they’re someone else’s.
The story unfolds in a series of episodes spanning years and involving apparently peripheral characters…a pupil of Ann’s who loses a leg, an elderly couple who helped Wade in the immediate aftermath of May’s death…but it’s intricately put together, and every part illuminates the central conundrum: what are we without memories? What are we without children to give them to?
One of the most moving descriptions, in a book that is constantly moving, is of the elderly woman who “had been a lover of horses once. At one time that was the whole of who she was…..How was anyone to remember that she had ridden them if there wasn’t something in the house that she could point to?” So she filled the house with horse ornaments, transforming it into a place “where old people lived.” Souvenirs, accurately named.
One of Emily Ruskovich’s teachers was Marilynne Robinson, whom she thanks in the acknowledgments. This comes as no surprise: Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping was also set in Idaho, where both she and Ruskovich grew up. The writers share a concentrated, meditative tone, a kind of sustained hum of suffering made bearable by quiet epiphanies.
Idaho is completely absorbing, reveals more and more of its layers and allusions with each reading, and manages to be both horrifying and hopeful at the same time.
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (Chatto & Windus, $37) is available at Unity Books.