Emily Ruskovich

Published by Chatto & Windus (2017) and Vintage (2018)

320pp, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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Young North American writer Emily Ruskovich has just won the $100,000 International Dublin Literary Award for 2019 with this, her first novel.  Set in the challenging mountain wilderness of northern Idaho, it investigates the causes and effects of a shocking act of violence within a small, isolated and apparently loving family – Wade Mitchell, his determined college-girl wife, Jenny, and their two young daughters, June and May.

One hot summer’s day in 1995, when the Mitchells are out on a neighbouring mountain loading good, cheap birch logs for their farm, Jenny kills May with her hatchet.  May’s older sister flees, never to be seen again.  Jenny is sentenced to life imprisonment.

The narrative opens on the farm in 2004, closely in the head of Wade’s second wife, Ann, a piano teacher.  In passages of extraordinarily convincing interiority, Ruskovich shows Ann doggedly, lovingly, half-guiltily, trying to imagine how the crime happened, and why.  By now, it is clear to her that Wade is suffering from early-onset dementia, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him.  She has become habituated to her husband’s sudden outbursts of corrective violence, during which he seems to forget that she is human.  For reasons that are not entirely clear to the reader, she loves him – as did his first wife.  It is partly because of this, and partly because of her own childhood, that she spends her years engaged in a huge and potentially risky effort of empathy, extended to all four members of the family she has joined.  She becomes the family’s sole witness, ending the story with the suggestion that a resolution of sorts has been reached and a way found for the survivors to live quietly.

Ruskovich acknowledges among her chief influences two grandes dames of contemporary fiction:  Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro.  One thinks also of Carol Shields, another great writer drawn to similar themes.  Whatever you make of her puzzling story, her multiple truths, the quality of the writing shines out in page after page of vivid particularity.  Definitely a writer to cherish and watch.

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