American / Book Reviews / The Latest

A Review of “Idaho”: forgetting and remembering

Book cover of Idaho. Picture of oil painting of daffodils.

I am not going to lie, the decision I made to read this book was heavily based on the cover. What is that old saying again? Anyway, I found myself drawn to the strong yellows and greens and I had also seen this book everywhere. It was popping up in book stores, in my library, and online. When I start to see a certain book everywhere I have to question if the book is haunting me for reason. So, I decided to see what it was all about.

Idaho is Emily Ruskovich’s first novel. The title is also where the book is set and it explores a multitude of themes including loss, grief, dementia, rural life, marriage, love, and sacrifice. The novel was slow for me to get into at first and I struggled to get through the first 70 or so pages. Not because the story was badly written, but simply because there was so much to understand. Reflecting on my time reading the book, I also see how this is one of the novel’s strong points. Nothing is every explicitly stated. Nothing is ever certain. Points of view are switched and changed between Wade, Jenny, Ann, May, and June. Through each perspective we learn about love, loss, and sacrifice.

Tragedy seems to abound for the main characters, with almost one thing after another piling up. It starts with Jenny murdering her daughter May. This splinters the Mitchell family as Jenny goes to prison and June runs away and is never found again. Whilst Wade finds love again with Ann, his second wife. His family’s history of early onset dementia and his subsequent diagnosis of this illness means he eventually loses himself. As his memory fades, Wade feels a sense of loss presumably from the loss of his daughters, but he is unable to place the loss. He simply has grief with no home, no place to put it. He does not remember who to blame or who is lost. So he blames Ann. The poignant question that this novel asks in relation to Wade’s memory:

What do we call a memory we know we have forgotten? As Douwe Draaisma states:

“We are used to thinking of remembering and forgetting as mutually exclusive. What you remember you did not forget and what you have forgotten you cannot recall. Where one stops, the other starts. But where in this dichotomy do you fit the memory of what you have forgotten? Not the memories of the events themselves – those you have forgotten – but the knowledge that you used to know something that has now gone?”

Draaisma’s work on memory, forgetting, and the autobiographical self is poignant for a discussion on Idaho as it is the intersections of remembering and forgetting, self and other that the novel explores.

Another strength of this novel is the exploration of the role of caregiver taken on by Ann as Wade’s memory loss progresses. The suffocating guilt, frustration, and anxiety that Ann experiences whilst caring for Wade is something true of all carers. Watching someone lose themselves, lose their memories, lose their relationship with whilst you are still cursed with remembering is extremely heartbreaking.

This is not a light or easy read, but it is beautifully written and bittersweet till the last word. This book somehow brings comfort in the raw portrayal of human experiences and is a must-read for 2018.

Have you read Idaho? How do you think dementia, loss, family, and grief were portrayed in the novel? As always, share the reading love.

P.S. If you are interested in reading some nonfiction literature on memory check out Draaisma’s works:

Draaisma, Douwe. Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Draaisma, Douwe. Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas about the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).