SHADOW TAG by Louise Erdrich

Book Quote:

“That wall was made of an immaterial rubble. Things said and unsaid, actions, misunderstandings, a piled conglomerate of moments, which, he believed, one pure moment could pierce. Or one symbol. Or one metaphor. What he really thought was that there would come a moment where he could truly reach Irene and that moment would change everything.”

Book Review:

Review by Debbie Lee Wesselmann (FEB 2, 2010)

As one of America’s most critically-acclaimed writers, Louise Erdrich has given her readers thirteen novels that examine the most intimate and awkward moments of her characters’ lives, whether it is Karl’s confusion about Celestine’s masculine build in The Beet Queen or a trio of children desperate to warm themselves after their mother fails to come home in The Painted Drum. In Erdrich’s latest novel, Shadow Tag, the entire novel is a dissection of the awkward intimacy of a disintegrating marriage. Written in what her publisher describes as “straight on, a single, gripping narrative,” Shadow Tag creates a claustrophobic world of dead love and the tricks those closest to it use as a means of survival.

Irene and Gil have been married long enough to have three children: teenage Florian, preteen Riel, and first-grader Stoney. Gil has made a living of his obsession, and possession, of Irene; he is a painter known for his series of Irene portraits, many sexual, all revealing. In a kind of conservation of talent, Irene’s entry into the relationship has stalled her own promising career as an art historian. For Irene, it is not enough to be loved. She needs freedom, and she needs to be separated from Gil’s need.

Understandably, Gil won’t let go. With their three children as witnesses, they go into marital freefall, with Irene turning more and more to the constant buzz of being drunk and Gil putting all his hopes into his latest painting of her. Because Irene knows that Gil will not let her go of his own accord, she creates two diaries, one red and “hidden” where Gil can read the falsehoods she creates, and one blue, tucked away in a safe deposit box and holding the truth.

Two central metaphors haunt this novel: the story of Irene’s dissertation subject, an artist named George Catlin, who painted the image of a Native woman and was blamed by the tribe for stealing her essence and thus killing her; and that of shadow tag, a children’s game, where one tries to touch the shadow, and not the real person, to capture him. The last metaphor is mimicked by the presence of the two diaries, one real and the other misleading, just as Gil’s paintings are but shadows of the real Irene.

Unlike Erdrich’s earlier fiction which used the culture of Native American tribes, particularly that of the Ojibwe, as a driving force behind the content and the style, here it is used as texture: Gil and Irene are both part American Indian, although neither is connected to the heritage. Their daughter Riel is the only one of them who attempts to connect with the past, and even she fails to make it a meaningful part of her life. Instead, the family is caught in the stereotype of their heritage without having the richness of its traditions. Gil’s career is both defined and limited by his painting of a Native woman. Irene tells him that he made a mistake locking himself into his depiction of Native Americans, as he will never escape the label. If one thinks this is Erdrich herself complaining that, because she “painted” Native American characters at the beginning of her career and now is stuck in that tradition, one may not be too far off the mark, as elements of metafiction work their way into the novel.

Even for a writer unlike Erdrich who is not conscious of the importance of names, the introduction of a character named Louise by an author sharing the same first name should be a cue to the reader. The character Louise does the bidding of both Gil and Irene, and in fact turns out to be Irene’s previously unknown half-sister. Irene writes in her true diary, “But the thought that I could have Louise to call, Louise to talk to, is such a strange thing. She is almost like another me, a twin. I think we do look alike.” Louise is the one who hides things from Irene but also who supports her. This Doppleganger guides the characters without interfering, unwilling to betray either character, concerned for everyone’s safety and well-being. The presence of the author in her own story fits with the thematic development; after all, the novel is about alternate texts, stories, and perspectives that nestle one inside the other. It is about fiction, the one Irene creates in the red journal that ends up hurting Gil more than the truth does. Especially since the public revelation that Erdrich had separated from her former husband Michael Dorris before he killed himself in 1997, this story can be construed in part (but only in part) as Erdrich’s belief of what might have happened to her if she had stayed in her own marriage. Readers who pick up on this and who know the public details of her relationship with Dorris will find the final moments of Shadow Tag poignant, both for what happens and what doesn’t.

Watching a marriage fall apart is never fun. At its most intimate, Shadow Tag becomes painful to read in its details. Neither Gil nor Irene is lovable or even right, and the reader will find herself switching allegiances based on single acts. The scenes mirror the messy realities of a failing relationship, where one can hate the other one day but then show affection during a surprising moment that reawakens the history between them. Erdrich’s talent for description, metaphor, and characterization keep the story from stalling in its darkest moments. Without giving the ending away, suffice it to say that the novel ends with two authors, one inheriting its story and the other moving on. The final pages makes one wonder what Erdrich has in store for future novels.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 104 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper (February 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Debbie Lee Wesselmann
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Louise Erdrich
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


**Ojibwe reservation

With her husband, Michael Dorris:

For Young Readers:


February 2, 2010 · Judi Clark · 2 Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Contemporary, Family Matters, Literary, y Award Winning Author

2 Responses

  1. brody - February 2, 2010

    Debbie, I read this book and your review has made it richer and more meaningful for me. Thank you. Bonnie

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