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The achingly sorrowful Idaho transcends its core murder mystery

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Photo: Nicole Antonuccio
Photo: Nicole Antonuccio
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Idaho

Author: Emily Ruskovich
Publisher: Random House

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Poetic and razor sharp, Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is a mystery in more ways than one. The decades-spanning narrative is scaffolded on the question of why a mother would murder her child, seemingly randomly and without the intent to do so, and on a central mystery: When the mother kills one daughter, the other daughter runs away through the trees and disappears. No one knows if she died in the woods or still lives, undiscovered by her remaining family. Idaho opens years after this event, when the girls’ mother is in prison and their father has remarried Ann, the character that Idaho spends the most time with. She’s an outsider peering into these events, trying to understand. Living in the home where this other family spent nine years, she finds clues, pieces together hints of information, and spends time in the truck where the daughter died. Her husband, Wade, meanwhile, is in the beginning stages of early-onset dementia, further blurring the truth as his memories become tangled.

Idaho shifts to his perspective, as well as the perspective of his first wife, Jenny, who we meet serving a 30-year prison sentence. Each point of view is imbued with a strikingly different perspective on the events that connect them. Each is powerfully psychological, as Ruskovich gingerly peels back their respective psyches, regrets, and dreams and each character’s undeniable urge to gaze backward. There is a plot, but it can’t be said that much happens in Idaho. These characters go through their lives, connected by love and tragedy. They walk the same places, specters in an unchanging mountainous landscape, where their lives are played out in temporal blips.

Idaho is sad, but not despairingly so. Ruskovich’s prose is lyrical but keen, a poem that never gets lost in its own rhythm. Even as the plot can be seen to loosely hang over the murder, most of the chapters are more concerned with a Marilynne Robinson-like emphasis on the private, painfully human contemplation going on inside the characters’ brains. The result is writing as bruisingly beautiful as the Idaho landscape in which the story takes place. Why Jenny killed one child, and where the other might be, are little more than an excuse to study these characters’ motivations and deepest cravings. Ruskovich does this exquisitely.


For a place to discuss the ending we don’t reveal here, head over to The Last Page.

Purchase Idaho here, which helps support The A.V. Club.