Every December I look on Amazon to see what books are coming out in the following year, and I have lots of fun scrolling through different genres and adding books to my wishlist. While doing this last year, I was initially attracted to Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel simply because of the image of its gorgeous cover; such artistry had to promise something delightful within. This quite shallow attraction caused me to research the author further, and when I discovered an interview in which she listed her favourite American writers as being all of my favourites too, I thought I would probably find myself liking her work. So, when it came out last month I hotfooted it to Foyles and excitedly read the first few pages. Impressed by the lyrical quality of the writing, I snapped it up and made it my first new fiction read of 2017. I raced through it in two days over the Easter holiday, hardly bearing to put it down between mouthfuls of chocolate. Ruskovich has a wonderful way of writing that manages to be incredibly atmospheric without feeling the need to draw attention to itself by painstakingly cluttering sentences with metaphors: a rare gift indeed. To her great credit, despite having an MFA, she doesn’t write in that elaborate, ponderous way so many contemporary writers seem to at the moment, and substance and style occupy an equal place, creating a fantastic story that sings off the page.
Told from multiple viewpoints, and jumping around in time, the story centres on an act of random violence in which a small child, May, is killed by her mother, Jenny, one summer in the mountains of Idaho. Her older sister, June, after witnessing what happens, runs away, and cannot be found. Wade, Jenny’s husband and the girl’s father, marries Ann a year after the event, and the narration starts from Ann’s perspective, some years later, when Wade is starting to lose his mind to dementia, and the painful legacy of the loss of his children is rearing itself ever more presently within their everyday lives. It is Ann’s desire to understand that day, to try and work out from the occasional snatches of information she gains about the girls and their mother, and the life they had with Wade, how and why Jenny can have killed her child, that drives the narrative, and there is much that is haunting, moving and surprising along the way.
I won’t say much more other than to warn in advance that this is not a thriller, or a detective story; there is no conclusion to the story, as Ruskovich has been incredibly brave in choosing not to provide a reason for what happened. There is no neat confession, no moment of realisation when a light is shone into the darkness. We are left to use the information we are given to come up with our own interpretation, just like Ann, and personally, I preferred it like that. I closed the pages with so much left to think about, and the characters and the beautifully realised world of the Idaho mountains in which they live stayed with me for days. It is a tragic and deeply sad tale, yet also one that quivers with hope and beauty. Ruskovich paints such a rich and wise portrait of humanity, exploring with an exquisite lightness of touch how deep and unfathomable the depths of all our lives truly are, even to those who think they know us the most. I loved it. I would say it’s definitely been my book of the year so far, and I already can’t wait to read what Emily Ruskovich writes next.