Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review: Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Shadow Tag
by Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins Publishers
255 pages

Intense.  That's the only word that can describe the last three and a half hours of my life, because I just spent that chunk of time reading Shadow Tag.  

Yes, all of it.  In one sitting.

It's a rare book that I pick up after dinnertime, finish at 10:30, and promptly turn on my laptop because I have to do something with all this ... this ...  whatever.  Clearly, Shadow Tag has rendered me momentarily speechless.  (Part of that is because I never, ever saw the ending coming and I'm kinda reeling here.) 

This is, as I said to The Husband, "the most intense (there's that word again), creepy, sad, and bizarre book that I cannot put down because it is so incredibly well-written." 

Shadow Tag is the story of a family (parents Irene and Gil, and their three children Florian, Riel, and Stoney) where each member is slowly becoming unraveled by the dysfunctional and emotionally abusive (and at time physically abusive) relationship between Irene and Gil.  When she discovers that her husband has been reading her diary, Irene loses what little trust is left between them.

This sounds innocuous, but what might be a forgivable act for another couple on stronger footing becomes the impetus for further deception - an "I'll get him" mentality.  Irene begins to deceive Gil by intentionally fictionalizing her diary entries - while hiding her real diary in a bank's safe deposit box and writing her true feelings in the closet-like room provided by the bank for privacy purposes when transferring items to and from the box. 

Make no mistake, Gil's not blameless here.  He's a painter whose main subject for years has been Irene, usually forced to model for him in degrading and humiliating ways.  By capturing her on the canvas, he has imprisoned her - and her image - in a way that only a cold-hearted master of abuse could justify.

"You are an unlucky thirteen years older than me. But here is the most telling thing: you wish to possess me. And my mistake: I loved you and let you think you could." (pg. 18)

"She had to shed the weight of Gil's eyes," she thinks. "The portraits were everywhere. By 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."

As incredibly well written as this book is (and oh my God, it absolutely is!), I cannot imagine reading this if I was in the midst of an abusive relationship or a divorce or some such traumatic situation, or if I was still dealing with the many issues from such.  It is not a pretty book. At times it is downright painful. Erdrich gives her reader two very strong, well-defined characters and prose that glides off the page, but the stark pain that is evident throughout this novel doesn't give the reader many reasons to smile.

Shadow Tag, like all of Louise Erdrich's books that I've read, is layered with symbolism.  This is set in the modern day, and there is mention of Irene and Gil's youngest child being born on September 11, 2001.  He was born at the "beginning of the end," which is in reference to their marriage but in some ways, perhaps a reference to the beginning of the end of a way of life as we once knew it and took for granted?  With the main character's name being Irene America, and the reference to shadows throughout, it is interesting to think there is something more being expressed here.  I believe that is likely the case, as Erdrich is the type of writer where no syllable is wasted and every word is very much intentional.

Of Louise Erdrich's books, I've only read her short story collection The Red Convertible (which I reviewed here) and her novel The Painted Drum (see my review here) so I hardly consider myself an expert on her work.  But I know what I like in a book - strong writing, solid characters, a story of substance - and I can say with all certainty that Louise Erdrich has now earned a spot on my favorite writer list.

And of the three books of Louise Erdrich's that I've read, Shadow Tag is the most disturbing - but from a literary perspective, it is an absolute triumph and thus far, my favorite of her works.

I read this and wrote this review back in August (I know, that's how many reviews I have stashed in Drafts for a "rainy day") but if you're looking for a creepy kinda book for this Halloween weekend, this one would certainly suffice.  It's also fitting because as October draws to a close, it's a good reminder that this is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and that every month should be one where we learn the signs of domestic abuse and know how to seek help for ourselves or someone in need. 

What Others Thought (Did I miss your review?  Let me know in the comments.)

Lisa from Books on the Brain

The New York Times
Washington Post

copyright 2010, Melissa (Betty and Boo's Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.


nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I really want to read this one. I'm glad to see you enjoyed it. I've thought of saving it for a snowy, winter day when I can curl up and read it in one sitting too!

Alyce said...

I wish I had a stash of reviews for rainy days.

I haven't heard of this author before, but her writing does look very good. I'm sure I'd have to be in the right mood to read it though. Nice review!

Care said...

Wow! You really liked it! I appreciate this review. I did find myself picking up on the symbolism and admiring the writing but also didn't quite connect.