Louise Erdrich pours heart and soul into this powerful, sensitive portrait of the final months of a destructive marriage.
Letâ€™s say you discover your husband has been reading your diary. Do you (a) bop him over the head with it and tell him not be such an idiot, (b) leave, as the violation of trust is really creepy, (c) seek counseling, as thereâ€™s clearly a problem here, or (d) donâ€™t tell him you found out, and instead start keeping a secret diary in a bank deposit box while writing adulterous scenes in the old one to torture him.
Irene America goes with â€śdâ€ť in Louise Erdrichâ€™s almost unbearably powerful new novel, Shadow Tag. Since her husband, Gil, a renowned painter, suspects her anyway, Irene figures that she might as well give him what heâ€™s looking for. Even before she realized Gil was reading her diary, Irene felt as if she had no privacy: For years, sheâ€™s been her husbandâ€™s model, spending hours literally naked as he painted.
â€śHeâ€™d done a series of landscapes, huge canvases vast with light, swimming Albert Bierstadt or Hudson School replicas, in which sheâ€™d appeared raped, dismembered, dying of smallpox in graphic medical detail.â€ť And at some point, she discovers, he somehow stole her identity. â€śBy remaining still, in one position or another, for her husband, she had released a double into the world. It was impossible, now, to withdraw that reflection. Gil owned it. He had stepped on her shadow.â€ť
Ireneâ€™s only refuge is the bath, with its blessed locked door. (Even there, Gil wants to know how long sheâ€™ll be.) And at this point, she needs more than Calgon to take her away.
In â€śShadow Tag,â€ť Erdrich, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, strips away anything tangential. There are no exuberant bursts of magic realism, no naked women playing Chopin while being carried downriver in a flood. â€śShadow Tagâ€ť is instead a tightly written close-up of the final months of a destructive marriage, written with great reserves of power and wisdom. Erdrich has always been a master of metaphor; here she uses the native American belief of shadows as souls to powerful effect.
The novel is told by excerpts from the two diaries â€“ the real and fake â€“ with details filled in by an omniscient narrator, whose identity isnâ€™t revealed until the last chapter. Trying to live while always being watched has stunted Irene, as has her role as the â€śpanther-likeâ€ť half of an â€śimportant native American couple.â€ť (Sheâ€™s never finished her dissertation on 19th-century painter George Catlin, whose paintings of native Americans sometimes startled the subjects.)
For his part, Gil craves Ireneâ€™s love and cannot live without trying to repossess it. And he has his own label to deal with, having been pigeonholed as a â€śnative American painter.â€ť â€śDonâ€™t paint Indians. The subject wins. A Native painter himself had said this. Youâ€™ll never be an artist. Youâ€™ll be an American Indian artist.â€ť And so, Gil, because he paints his wife, is a â€śpainter of the American West, even though he lived in Minneapolis.â€ť
As â€śShadow Tagâ€ť progresses, Irene struggles against inertia and alcoholism to free herself from her â€śiconic marriage,â€ť while controlling Gil fights to breathe life back into itâ€“ no matter whom he hurts in the process. Huddled at ground zero between the two trenches are their three children.
Despite the shouting and bruises, they both somehow believe theyâ€™ve protected the children from any permanent damage. Meanwhile, 6-year-old Stoney draws portraits of his mother with a wineglass as an extension of her hand and carries a stuffed lion for protection. (After an especially bad fight, he shows up at his older brotherâ€™s door with the lion, â€śplus a bear, a moose, and an orange chicken.â€ť) Riel, their 10-year-old daughter, looks for survival pointers from her motherâ€™s biographies of 19th-century native Americans and keeps granola bars and water bottles ready in an old Barbie workout bag, in case of terrorist attack. Florian, a teenage math genius, lets his younger siblings sleep in his room and sneaks bottles of his motherâ€™s wine.
If the kids arenâ€™t affecting enough for you, then there are the family pets. Even the dogs are always on guard. â€śIrene thought they had gravitas. Weighty demeanors. She thought of them as diplomats. She had noticed that when Gil was about to lose his temper one of the dogs always appeared and did something to divert his attention.â€ť
Erdrichâ€™s characterizations in â€śShadow Tagâ€ť are marvels of both economy and compassion. She doesnâ€™t turn possessive Gil or passive Irene into bad guys, instead laying out what makes them fully human without flinching from the damage they do. It may be tempting to read parallels into Erdrichâ€™s own â€śiconic marriage,â€ť to poet and writer Michael Dorris, who committed suicide in 1997. But â€śShadow Tagâ€ť doesnâ€™t feel like a roman Ă clef, and it would be doing a disservice to limit what Erdrich has accomplished here by labeling it as such.
â€śShadow Tagâ€ť resonates with an almost unbelievable power. Where some tragedies are coldly bleak, as if the novelist couldnâ€™t put his characters through so much if he let himself care about them, â€śShadow Tagâ€ť is just the opposite. It wouldnâ€™t be able to break a readerâ€™s heart so thoroughly if Erdrich hadnâ€™t invested it with so much of her own.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.