Chronciles the emotional war between Irene America, a beautiful, introspective woman of Native American ancestry, struggling to finish her dissertation while raising three children, and her husband Gil, a painter whose reputation is built on a series of now iconic portraits of Irene.
While this is a novel about a marriage, it is also fundamentally a novel about the shattering impact that the failure of that marriage on the couple’s children. Much of what we learn about Irene and Gil we learn through their children’s eyes. Irene’s alcoholism, for instance, is revealed through this description of six-year-old Stoney: “He drew his mother almost every day, in beautiful dresses. He gave his mother stripes and polka dost and if he made a flowery dress he put a matching flower in her hair. In every picture, at the end of his mother’s hand, Stoney drew a stick with a little half-moon on the end of it.” When Irene asks him what that is, he tells her: “The wineglass.” The depth to which this is a story about “the children” does not become completely clear until the very last pages of the book, when facts about its narration are revealed, leading to a dramatic change in our understanding of the story.
Lousie Erdrich, of course, was married to Michael Dorris. Both successful writers, many aspects of their marriage were quite public, including allegations that he sexually abused one of their daughters. Dorris committed suicide about a year after he and Erdrich separated. Clearly there are echoes of Erdrich’s experiences throughout this book. Like all of her novels, this one is haunting and beautifully written.
Shadow Tag is a dark, disturbing, and psychologically thrilling novel about the unraveling of a marriage and the consequences for children living in a dysfunctional family. Gil is a highly intellectual man who is obsessively attached to his wife. He believes she is unfaithful to him, and is even jealous of Irene’s love for his children.
He was taciturn, depressed, sarcastic, charming. He’d grin when Irene though he was going to yell, turn fond on a dime. And he hadn’t always been so angry. The truth was, he needed Irene’s full attention. He’d had it before the children came. They took it away and he was jealous from the beginning. – from Shadow Tag, page 56 -
Irene lacks the strength to walk away from Gil – his control over her is nearly complete – so she becomes pathologically passive-aggressive, leaving tantalizing untruths in the diary she knows that Gil is reading. Their relationship becomes a game – like the title of the book, they take turns baiting each other, and all I could think about was the childhood game of tag, where one runs up and slaps another, turns and sprints away yelling “Tag, you’re it!”
Gil had a wall. Irene had a wall. Between the two walls there was a neutral, untouched area, a wilderness of all they did not know and could not imagine about the other person. - from Shadow Tag, page 151 -
Louise Erdrich’s prose is mesmerizing. She builds the tension between Gil and Irene beautifully. There can be no happy end, and yet the reader continues to read, anxious to see what will happen next, afraid to look away even though tragedy is just around the corner. Woven through the novel are references to Native American lore. Riel, the only daughter in the family, clings to her heritage for the power it represents. Irene examines and seeks understanding in the stories of her tribe and even names her daughter after an Indian poet.
A sure sign of a great book is the number of stickies that cling to its pages when I am finished reading. Shadow Tag had dozens of them. Erdrich’s writing has a poetic, yet stark quality to it. Her characters come alive on the page. She deftly controls the plot, teasing out tantalizing morsels of information that keep the reader turning the pages. Shadow Tag is not an enjoyable read – it made my mouth grow dry and made my heart ache. There is an element of inevitability which informs the story. How can things possibly be fixed between these two characters? How can the children ultimately be saved from the wreck of their family?
As I turned the final page, I found myself emotionally spent. But, even though I cannot say I enjoyed the novel, I was blown away by it. Louise Erdrich is the consummate story teller. Once the reader is in her capable hands, there is nothing to do but allow her to carry them to the end.
Readers who love literary fiction, psychological thrillers, and beautifully told stories with magnificent language, will want to read this book.
I didn't think at first that I was going to like this book, as I had difficulty relating to the characters' marital problems and found their little cruelties towards each other off-putting. But the writing was so good -- full of depth, subtlety and insight, written in a sparse, effective style -- that I quickly found myself swept up and drawn into these peoples' lives, almost against my will. I simply couldn't stop turning pages until I'd finished.
Gil and Irene are husband and wife…two people in a marriage that seems both addicting and toxic to both. Irene often acknowledges wanting out, yet many of her actions speak differently. Gil professes his undying love for Irene and their children, yet his actions sometimes make it impossible that they will stay with him.
“A soul could be captured through a shadow. It was in the Ojibwe language. Waabaamoojicchaagwaan – the word for mirror can also refer to shadow and to the soul: your soul is visible and can be seen. Gil had placed his foot on Irene’s shadow when he painted her. And though she tried to pull away, it was impossible to tug that skein of darkness from under his heel.”
Gil and Irene hurt each other in large and small ways, yet the primary victims of this destructive dance are their children. All three develop coping mechanisms, and all three seem braced for an inevitable disaster. Florian, Riel and Stoney are the most sympathetic characters in the book, forced to witness the destruction of their family and forced to grow up too soon.
The beginning of the end of this marriage is when Gil starts to read Irene’s diary…and she finds out. Their passionate and bitter dance intensifies.
“He’d become aware that the worse things were between them, the better his work came out. It did not yet occur to him to wonder whether his suspicions about Irene were also a method of pushing her away from him, so that he could feel her absence, and in turn feel an aching desire out of which we could make his art.”
The air in the house is so charged that even the dogs are aware of it. “In her new efforts at observation, Riel noticed many things. For instance, she had noticed that the dogs were behaving as if their humans were going on a trip. The dogs hated it whenever the suitcases came out. But there were no suitcases. They only acted as if there were suitcases. They were nervously watchful these days. There was something in the air that made them uneasy.”
All throughout this book, there is a sense of grasping…characters trying to hold on to emotions, ideas of how things used to be. Clutching at feelings, yet them slipping away out of a sweaty grasp.
Irene and Gil are locked into a life together, and their children are trapped with them. It becomes clear that the situation cannot last, yet as the tension mounts in the book, it is unclear whether survival will come to the ones who remain in the family or those who break free and rejoin the world outside.
This book was dark and unpleasant, even for me, yet I couldn't stop reading. I actively hated both of the adults, perhaps more than the author meant me to. Besides being selfish and abusive, I found them intellectually pretentious and snobbish My heart went out to the children, who were beautifully portrayed: Florian, the genius, Riel, the supposed protector of her family, and Stoney, too young to have constructed his defense mechanisms yet. The poor dears deserve so much better than the parents they are stuck with.
In case it isn't apparent by the tone of my review, I really liked this book.
It's at this point that Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary and she determines to use that to manipulate him into agreeing to a divorce. She also begins a second, secret diary, which she keeps in a safety deposit box at a bank.
This is a hard book to read. Unlike the scenarios set out in popular fiction, no one gets to be the good guy. And the three children are complex, interesting people. In the end, the book does feel fragmented, as though the author, in the end, couldn't continue to deal with the subject matter and so let the book go early.
Obsession, lack of personal boundaries, alcoholism, and abuse are characteristic of the painful entanglement that they share. Included in this tangle are three children who are more keenly aware of what is going on between the parents than the parents themselves.
The writing is terse, tense, and spare.. The title is a metaphor for a Native American belief in the afterlife or, land of the dead, as a sort of shadow world. The metaphor is suggested through out the story.
The story line reminds me of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
I would not recommend this book for anyone who is now going through or has experienced a difficult breakup. I found myself reliving aspects of my own pain while reading this description of the pain of others, which feels so real and deep.
There is a bit of comic relief; it is not all sad and heavy. There are a couple of amusing scenes with the couple and their therapist. Also, the middle child and only daughter gets some focus, and she is rediscovering her Native American roots and planning for survival in case of a disaster, such as an attack by terrorists or vampires, etc. And, despite their many differences the couple still finds it possible to use the forces that do drive them together to find intermittent happiness.
As her home increasingly becomes a place of violence and secrets, and she drifts into alcoholism, Irene moves to end her marriage.
It kind of beats you over the head with symbolic imagery and metaphors of the native experience...but that seems likely to be intentional. Possibly, she had to be obvious in order to pierce the narcissistic haze surrounding the husband and wife.
Either that, or Erdrich isn't writing with her dominant hand. Attempting to appear less polished, maybe? Painters do that sometimes, to achieve primitive effects. I think the ending kind of supports that idea, but I'd have to spoil it to explain...
It's not quite a roman a clef, but I don't doubt that there are true statements about Louise Erdrich's and Michael Dorris's marriage in it (especially the dialog Irene and Gil have about their relationship as "kitsch". How many people have occasion to refer to their marriage in that way?).
The characters' names are interesting, and I haven't seen anyone else comment on them. Are we supposed to believe that anyone would name a boy Florian America and saddle their daughter with the name Riel(presumably pronounced "Real")America? Real America? Really?
Also the best-friend/sister character is Louise, just like the author. I don't know what to make of that.
Though there are hints of the American Indian background of the characters ( both are mixed breed) there is certainly less than most of Erdrich’s novels. It is also interesting to speculate how this quite gifted author may have used this novel as a diary of her own, alluding to some personal similarities to her marriage to Michael Dorris. I have admired many of Erdrich’s works: The Master Butcher’s Singing Club, the Bingo Palace, Tracks, but it was interesting to see this variation in her usual style. I enjoyed this change.
This novel about modern relationships (marriage on the rocks, children trying to avoid the fallout) is well-written, as usual for Erdrich. However I have read too many novels lately about women using alcohol to escape from their problems. For someone who sees nothing wrong with taking a drink now and then, this book would be worth checking into.