Idaho is the debut novel by Emily Ruskovich, following a typical family – husband Wade, wife Jenny and two young daughters June and May – living in Idaho. Their lives are good until an unspeakable act shakes it up. Jenny kills one of her daughters and after this, the other one goes missing. The family is torn apart and we follow the separate characters through their past and future, trying to put this horrible event in perspective with their lives.
Idaho has gotten amazing reviews, all praising the thoughtful writing style as well as tackling such a difficult subject in a profound way. Throughout the novel, there are many allusions to the violent murder, but the author never actually shows or describes it. The idea of filicide, of murdering your own children, is something unspeakable, and Ruskovich handles it as such.
Another major character in the book is Ann, Wade’s second wife, and his daughter’s former music teacher. After the incident, Jenny is sentenced to years in prison while Wade is starting to lose his mind to Alzheimer. Wade and Ann get married not long after his daughter’s death and she starts to take care of him as he deteriorates further. While Wade loses his memory of what happened that day, Ann gets more and more obsessed with it.
It’s this obsession that I found most interesting. Ann steps into a life that is not her own, into a broken family, its ghosts constantly around her. It only makes sense that she gets obsessed with what Jenny did and why she did it. Why would she ruin her own family? How could a mother do such a thing? Wouldn’t you want to know?
Ruskovich expertly plays with this mystery surrounding Jenny’s act and even made me doubt whether Jenny did or did not do it. Throughout the novel, no one can give a proper explanation of why she would kill her daughter and the only witnesses – Wade and his missing daughter – can no longer talk about it.
Near the end of the book, it’s made pretty clear that Jenny did kill her daughter and we get an insight into the question ‘why’. Ruskovich doesn’t spell it out, doesn’t even show what happens, but writes:
“Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention. No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.”
This explanation didn’t satisfy me and I found myself still looking for answers after the book was finished. Obsessed like Ann, I read review after review, trying to find a reason why. Right before the quoted passage, we see Jenny worry about her daughters’ well-being. How does she go from a caring mother to a cold-blooded murderer? Neither the book nor the reviews seemed all too interested in answering that question and I got curious why no one was talking about this.
To answer the question of why a mother would kill her children, it would be hard not to talk about the most famous literary example of filicide. In Euripides’ play Medea, a mother murders her own children to take revenge on her husband for falling in love with another woman. Just like Jenny, Medea thinks of her children’s well-being moments before, she actually hesitates, but thinking of the pain she will cause her husband, she hardens her resolve and kills two of her sons in cold blood.
Here I saw comparisons to Jenny’s story. There are hints at Jenny knowing about Wade’s infatuation with Ann. They met before the death of their daughter when June got in trouble for bringing a knife to school. Ann starts giving him piano lessons, teaching him one specific song that Wade keeps humming, that his daughter May overhears and starts singing as well. Jenny hears this, sees Ann taking hold of her husband, of her daughter, and it ‘moves her hand’. So does this mean that Jenny is just a woman scorned? Did she kill her daughter out of revenge, to hurt her husband and to make sure that they will remain hers?
When I still studied philosophy, the story of Medea was discussed and the act of filicide was met with understandable anger. Why would a mother do such a thing? Revenge wasn’t an appropriate answer. She should care more about her children, than about her silly vengeance. A real mother would never do such a thing, so there must have been something inhuman about her.
We can’t imagine why people would do the unspeakable, but at the same time, we’re fascinated by it. Whenever there’s a case of a parent, and especially a mother, killing her children, we’re equally outraged and intrigued. We keep asking ourselves these same questions, how can you harm something as innocent as your own child? But more importantly, could life ever make me do such a thing?
Ann struggles with this question as well, fulfilling the role of the reader. As a teacher and a person who cares deeply about children who aren’t even her own, she can’t help but become obsessed with what happened. She asked Wade several times about it, snoops through his things looking for clues and even tries to visit Jenny in jail. However, to me, she seemed to do all these things half-heartedly. She never really pushes Wade, she doesn’t ask difficult questions and when Jenny doesn’t want to see her, she never tries again. It’s almost like she doesn’t really want to know the answer.
This idea was strengthened by the end of the novel, set in the future where Jenny has served her sentence and Ann arranges for her to live back in her house in Idaho. Ann no longer asks questions, like she no longer needs to know what happened. Her obsession has waned and all she wants to do is forget it happened instead of facing an unspeakable act. Would Ann have been able to do this, if she knew exactly what Jenny had done? Would we as a reader have allowed Jenny’s redemption throughout the novel if Ruskovich had shown the murder and had given us a reason for it?
By not knowing the details, it’s easier for us to ignore this horrible thing and I think Ruskovich touches on something very human here. We’re all curious, but when it comes to the real unspeakable, we’d rather not know. We try to stay out of the darkest parts of the human psyche and prefer to obscure them because we might touch on something we recognize. Rather than trying to understand Jenny’s actions, we pretend that there was no reason for the violence. It happened and now we move on because the thought of killing your own children is so inconceivable, we don’t even like to entertain it in fiction.
Review Copy attained through Netgalley with special thanks to the publisher Random House UK.