Review: The Empress of Idaho by Todd Babiak

The Empress of Idaho
By Todd Babiak; McClelland & Stewart; 322 pages.
Our Score
2.5

Local author Todd Babiak is a highly talented writer who’s written some great novels with fantastic premises, relatable characters and a lot of nuance. (One of my personal favourites is Toby: A Man.) But while his most recent book, The Empress of Idaho, features his usual immersive prose, it falls flat in some respects. 

The novel is set in the summer of 1989 in Monument, a small town in Colorado, and follows 14-year-old Adam Lisinski. The story opens with Adam’s neighbour Marv unexpectedly showing up with his new 37-year-old wife Beatrice, who Adam is immediately smitten with. What follows is essentially the story of how Adam’s relationship with Beatrice gradually destroys his life and a detailed account of the sexual and physical abuse that she inflicts on him.

Obviously a book like this is not for everyone, as it contains content that some readers may find triggering, but even if you manage to make it through the more explicit scenes, at the final page you may find yourself wondering what the point was. It’s not until the final chapter, which essentially functions as an epilogue, that Adam is fully realized as a character—and at that point the book skips ahead to when he’s 41. 

As a teenager, Adam has little agency, and his understanding of what’s happening to him is pretty limited. This depiction of Adam as a character to whom things are done helps underscore the reality of his sexual abuse—that he is too young to consent, even if he feels otherwise—but leaves little for the reader in terms of satisfying character development. (His mother Helen and best friend Simon are well-written, interesting characters, but since everything the reader learns about them is through their interactions with Adam, we only get bits and pieces.) It’s not until adult Adam hits the scene with his 20/20 hindsight that the real ramifications for his character are revealed, and by then it’s too little, too late.

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