Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Reading group: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Warning: spoiler - maybe!

This debut novel, suggested by Mark, won the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award (for which books are nominated by public libraries worldwide). Its narrative touchstone is an incident in the past of the novel, the hatchet murder of a small child, May, by her mother Jenny, in the family truck, on a seemingly placid and routine family outing to cut trees in a mountainside wood. At this Jenny's elder, nine-year-old daughter June fled into the woods and has never since been found in spite of years-long dissemination of posters depicting what she might look like as she grows. Jenny, who confessed immediately to the murder, was jailed for life. The focus of the novel, however, is not so much this past incident itself as its aftermath, and in particular the speculations about it by Ann, a teacher in the local school who afterwards married Wade, the father of this lost family. Very soon after their marriage Wade begins showing signs of early onset dementia, which his father suffered before him, and he is now losing his memory, so while Ann feels the need to carry memories of the past for Wade, and naturally wants to understand why the murder happened, the truth of it all is shrouded from her.

There was general agreement that this book is beautifully written on the level of the prose. The depiction of Ann's interiority is impressive and moving and the descriptions of the natural world spectacular, and Clare, accompanied by nodding agreement, pointed to the amazingly truthful portrayal of childhood in scenes between the two girls June and May. However, there was disagreement about the book's structure. It is strikingly non-linear, moving constantly back and forth between various time levels, and eventually into a future beyond our own present. Mark, agreed with by some others, said that he found this structure confusing, and constantly needed to check back to find out which incident had actually happened before another. Our Jenny and I, however, weren't so negative: although I agreed that it was sometimes a bit hard to keep up, the fragmented structure admirably replicates the workings of Ann's speculating and remembering mind, as well perhaps as the mental fragmentation caused by dementia.

Mark also found unsatisfying the fact that in spite of all Ann's speculations - and all her various and vivid mental recreations of the murder scene - she never comes to know why or even exactly how the murder happened, and neither do we, the readers. I suggested that the book's message is that the truth is sometimes just unknowable, but the fact is that most of us had found unsatisfying the way the book prompted us into speculations like those of the character Ann, only to have them frustrated.

We now began a detailed discussion about this matter. With regard to this, one aspect of the book in particular took our attention. Although Ann's speculations dominate the book, there are in fact passages outside of her consciousness, and which take the viewpoint of other characters. Thus we have an evident authorial consciousness which we would expect to know things of which not all the characters are aware, including of course the truth about the murder. The second part or chapter of the book begins with a new character, Elizabeth, a prisoner who eventually comes to share a cell with the character Jenny, and later in the prison scenes - scenes where Mark said his engagement with the book waned - we move into the viewpoint of Jenny herself. Never, however, in the conscious moments of the imprisoned Jenny that we share, does she once even think about the murder. It might seem obvious to argue that she is repressing the memory, but there is no apparent authorial indication of this. Indeed, there is an implication that she is suffering a self-imposed penance - for a long time never leaving her cell for exercise, for instance, and choosing to remain doing the most menial prison task - which would imply perhaps that her guilt, and therefore the murder, are overwhelmingly central for her. Authorial withholding of the information in these passages therefore seemed to us tricksy.

One striking speculation of the character Ann's left one member of our group convinced of its accuracy, so vividly was it told. The way that Ann and Wade had met was over a problem with nine-year-old June at the school where Ann was the music teacher, after which Wade began coming to Ann's schoolroom for piano lessons. Ann imagines Jenny, having guessed that something was developing between them, sitting in the truck for a break on the day of the murder, joined by her younger daughter May, and flipping when May begins singing the song that Ann has taught Wade to play, and turning in a moment of mad jealousy and swinging the hatchet at May's head. However, that did not seem to me a convincing motive for any mother, leave alone for Jenny: there is a striking section which is not in Ann's head but is authorially conveyed, so that we may take it as fact, in which Jenny is portrayed as a particularly understanding and empathic mother, empathising deeply with May who has been rejected by June, and eager to distract and comfort her. 

Few in our group however entertained any notion other than that Jenny had indeed, for some unfathomable reason, killed May. Our member Ann and I however had both wondered at times if in fact the murderer was June, the nine-year-old runaway sister and daughter, and that Jenny had covered for her by confessing to the murder. We weren't at all sure, however, as it seemed so unlikely: there didn't seem enough grounds. Looking back at the book now in order to write this, however, I am wondering more strongly if that was the authorial intention, or at least a deliberate authorial red herring.

It is made clear that June is, at least, a particularly emotionally charged child. The thing that brings Ann and Wade together at the start is the fact that June has stolen one of the decorated knives that Wade makes, in order to give it to an older boy with whom she is obsessively in love. Unaware that the boy, Eliot, has just left the school, she leaves it in his locker - unaware too that Ann has observed her doing so - along with a note: With All Of My Deepest Love in My Heart. The fact that June attends Ann's school sets her apart in the first place: it is a 'charter' school for 'high-achievers', though when Wade comes to the school to retrieve the knife, he makes it clear that the reason she has been sent there is because she had to be taken out of the 'normal school', as he puts it - and one wonders if this coinage is meant to be taken as significant. The reason for this move, it seems, is June's overemotional nature: she is  constantly falling in love with boys and getting her 'heart broken', he says, and he and his wife 'don't know what to do, really'. (Although that seems to me a somewhat tenuous reason for changing a child's school - particularly as it has clearly not solved the problem.) The stealing of the knife in itself could of course be seen as potentially sinister, although it would be little more than symbolic, since Wade assures Ann that June would never have used the knife for any violent purpose as she is 'very gentle' (and there is no real indication that Wade is wrong about this), and the act is of course done in the name of love. Another example of her obsessiveness is the occasion when Jenny needs to comfort May for being rejected by June. Having settled May, Jenny goes upstairs to June, and finds her seated on the floor whispering to herself as she acts out in her head one of her imagined scenarios, the obsessive nature of which unsettles Jenny enough for her to back out of the room quietly. There is a following scene in the garden in which May feels the rejection of the growing June's emotional movement away from her into her private (and romantic) mental world. Thus emotionally abandoned, May ruminates on the fact that June has a particular smell, a smell which is not pleasant, but like that of a 'frightened dog'. This again marks June out as different and strange and perhaps unwholesome, but again it is symbolic rather than psychologically indicative of her likely behaviour, and in any case the smell is characterised as that of fear rather than anything more dynamically sinister. And after all, while reading we in our group had all seen these scenes as admirable depictions of the typical behaviour of little girls and between sisters.

Then there is the strange matter of how June got her name. She wasn't always called June: she was initially Lily. We learn that Wade's father, in his dementia, came to believe that he had fathered a woman neighbour called June Bailey Roe, and when he died turned out to have left all of his money to her, dispossessing Wade. During their marriage Jenny writes several times to this June to try to retrieve Wade's lost inheritance, never to receive any reply. Then one day Wade tells Jenny that he wants their baby Lily to be called June. His motive is somewhat mystifying: he says that he doesn't like the woman she would be named after, but he does admire her for her tenacity. Jenny suggests that it could mess a child up having her name changed (though Wade overrides her by saying that the child is  so young she will never know). Once again, if the authorial intention is to cast some kind of discordant or troublesome air over the child June, then again, it's only symbolic, without any real psychological or factual substance indicating a potential for violence in June herself.

The character Eliot is surely, however, significant in this matter. He features only briefly and offstage at the start of the novel as the boy with whom June is in love and whom Ann teaches singing and is particularly fond of - a boy everyone falls in love with and who had lost a leg when the jetty at the edge of the lake in the school grounds collapsed beneath him. He suddenly reappears as an adult late on in this lengthy novel, and we share his memories of the accident: his rucksack placed by someone on the jetty, little girls at a table nearby giggling in hero worship at his presence and writing in secret games before getting up for their bus, and the horror for Eliot of falling through and being left alone, stuck all night. However, a girlfriend overturns his view of it all by suggesting to him that maybe the whispering little girls placed the rucksack on the jetty with malicious intent, knowing that he would fall through. Very soon after this in the novel we are witness to a scene between June and May in the woods where they are playing a writing game which is meant as a charm for predicting one's romantic destiny. June says that she doesn't need to do the game as she has already chosen her romantic love, whom we can assume is Eliot. As Eliot reassesses his memory, he remembers that there was a piece of paper on the top of his rucksack carrying just this charm game, so we can link June with the little girls by the lake and with Eliot's accident. It is hard, though, to believe that her motive was malicious, since it is after this that she will leave her gift and passionate note in his locker. Again, the authorial intention may be to show the witch-like character of obsession and its unfortunate consequences, but this does nothing to suggest the likelihood of the kind of violent act that killed May.

If it was June who committed the murder this would be a better explanation for why she ran away than the unsatisfactory reasons our group had pondered (Was she just too horrified to stay? Was she afraid of her mother after seeing her kill May? But then why didn't she run to Wade? And why would she never return - she was only nine, after all? Did something happen to her in the woods to prevent her doing so? So why then was her body never found?) When Jenny is finally released from prison Ann feels the need to look after her by giving her the money that has finally been returned by June Bailey Roe and setting her up with a new life, and critics have seen this as a huge act of forgiveness and redemption (and forgiveness and redemption as the main themes of the book). If Ann suspected that June was really the murderer then this would be a more concrete motive for such an act of restoration. However, I noticed no hint within the text that she does have such a suspicion. Indeed, as far as I remember all of the above hints about June's potential strangeness occur in the sections that take the viewpoints of others or are located in a more authorial consciousness.

In addition, as we were reading the book we found those sections less significant than I may have made them seem here, as they are among other sections that focus on the lives and preoccupations of more peripheral characters - the character Elizabeth who comes to share a cell with Jenny, Wade's dying father, the childless couple whose house Wade knocks at immediately after the murder, and even the bloodhound who fails to pick up June's scent in the wood. This last is a piece of quite virtuoso writing, and the short section concerning the childless couple is very moving and a set-piece in itself. Our member Ann said it read like a short story, and both she and John voiced the suspicion that the novel had been compiled by drawing several short stories together, and that this explained what to us was a lack of cohesion and rationale.

While I felt that a lack of rationale in life, the impossibility sometimes of ever knowing the truth, was indeed the point of this novel, and a message that I consider in theory to have integrity, I didn't feel the satisfaction in it that I might have, since the authorial hints and mystifications (deliberate or otherwise, it's hard to tell) prompted me, like the rest of our group, not to accept this message, but to want the solution that was simply not available. And I think it was this lack of textual redemption that for me made the book unbearably sad. I am normally perfectly happy to read dark books about tragedy, but on this occasion there was no catharsis: once I had finished reading I was left with a feeling of utter bleakness, and nearly all in our group agreed. Though Doug, whom I had expected to like the book for its fine writing, said that he simply hadn't been able to engage with it at all.  

Finally John made the comment that usually when we discuss a book we come to a greater understanding of it, but that the more we discussed this book the less sense we made of it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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