While at times my reading style is a little meandering, moving between two or three novels, maybe a memoir or an essay, a range of things that are almost but not quite capturing me, other books take me by the throat and do not let me go. Two brilliant debut novels, Idaho by Emily Ruskovich and History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, grabbed me in this compulsive violent way, and indeed forms of violence are at the core of both novels, though to reduce their scope to this alone does not do justice to either.
Idaho explores an unspeakable act of violence which rends apart a seemingly ordinary outing in the woods for a family; father Wade, mother Jenny, and two little girls, June and May, aged eight and five. May is suddenly, violently, killed by her mother and June flees into the woods never to be found again.
For the most part, the novel is narrated by Ann, Wade’s second wife, who seeks to reclaim the events of that day from Wade, whose memory is being lost to early Altzeimer’s. While the crime is at the novel’s core, Ruskovich plays in and around it like the shadows dappling the woods. By the end we see it, directly and indirectly, through many perspectives. And we have learnt so much of its underlying layers, we cannot see, or even understand it, in any reductive way. Idaho does not allow us the complacency of a fixed position or judgement of any of its characters, even a woman who has killed her own child. And, despite its devastating centre, the novel is awash with beauty and humanity.
Idaho meditates on memory and the traces of those who have gone: the fading scent on a a glove means that a bloodhound cannot follow June’s flight; a pupil leaves smudges of sweat on Ann’s piano keys; an artist paints portraits of June as an older child, a teenager, and an adult in the attempt to bring back to someone, anyone, a memory of her sighting. But no one remembers.
The novel moves backwards and forwards in time. In the months leading up to May’s death, we see that she both adores and resents June, who has left behind the imaginary worlds they created, peopled with Barbies and Kens whose emotional lives they contrive and control together. June has grown away and May has been left reeling, abandoned, consumed with futile fury and desperate sadness. Idaho reminded me of what I have observed in my own children and remember myself; that childhood is not an innocent idyll but a place of intense emotion. Both pain and ecstacy lie within it. We might wish it otherwise, but as children learn to negotiate the world they are often alone.
But Ruskovich offers moments of exquisite unexpected beauty in childhood too; a scene in which the girls immerse themselves in an empty rubbish bin filled with water on a hot day in their rambling mountain garden, brought back to me the child’s exquisite painful sense of being utterly overtaken by a physical moment.
Novels about families in all their damaged glory grab me again and again. The History of Wolves explores a period in the life of 15 year old Linda, who lives with her parents in an abandonned commune in icy northern Minnesota and is drawn into the family who comes to live across the lake, mother Patra, father Leo, and four-year-old Paul, who she begins to babysit. With parents whose care is minimal and whose home is stark and desolate – ragged blankets on her loft bed, fish if her father happens to catch some, discarded hand-me-down clothes – Linda is drawn into the light of a family that seems to be everything hers is not. In Paul’s house food is abundant and we are aware of Linda’s hungry joy, that of a girl who is emotionally starving.
Both Idaho and History of Wolves are about families gone wrong and children lost in their wake. Both books force us to question what is it to be a good parent, a bad one, a loving person or a violent one. How may our ideologies or beliefs, or our damage, impose destruction on our children? Like the wolves she writes about in a school project and the dogs her family owns, who spend much of their grim lives chained, Linda is wild and outcast, chained to her family and strangely unfettered by societal rules. Dismissed as a ‘freak’ and a ‘Commie’ by her schoolmates, she appears less unworldly than from another different world, unable to read the normal cues of ‘society’and ‘family’ and thus unable or perhaps unwilling to prevent the death of Paul.
Linda relates the events as an older person, irrevocably damaged by what happened in Paul’s family, but also by her own. As in Idaho, no easy answers are offered. Was it better that she never had her brief experience of the light and the darkness of that family? Could she have done anything to prevent the tragedy? As I was seeing the world through her eyes, I was reminded of our young border collie turning her head on the side and looking at us when we want her to do, or not do, one thing or another. The look that seems to say: I am trying to understand your language but I am from another world and as much as I would like to, I just don’t understand.
Kate Ryan writes fiction and non-fiction and has worked as an editor for various publishing houses including Penguin and Lothian Books as a manuscript assessor and a writing mentor. Her work has appeared in publications including New Australian Writing 2, The Sleepers Almanac, Kill Your Darlings, the Griffith Review, TEXT, and Best Australian Stories (2016). Her children’s picture books have been published by Penguin and Lothian. In 2015 and 2016 Kate’s short stories were shortlisted for the Josephine Ulrick Award and the Boroondara Literary Awards and longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Prize. Her essay Psychotherapy for Normal People won the Writers’ Prize in the Melbourne Prize for Literature (2015).