Monday, August 27, 2012

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich — 272 pgs

When the beautiful Irene discovers that her husband, Gil, is reading her diary, she decides to concoct another diary for his eyes only and hides her original. Gil and Irene’s marriage is on rocky territory, and as both of them struggle towards and away from each other, the full gravity of their marriage comes into clear focus. Gil is a renowned painter whose subject has always been, and will always be, Irene. Though it’s not clear at first why Irene loathes and resents Gil, as the narrative moves forward, Gil is exposed as an abusive and mercurial man who stops at nothing to minimize and humiliate his wife and children, both with his art and in his his dealings with them as a father and husband. When Irene hits upon the idea of the separate diary, Gil of course reads it and becomes inflamed. Irene is hoping to leave Gil and take her three children, but Gil is unwilling to let her go. But does Irene really plan on leaving Gil, or is she too caught up in his unhealthy adoration and abuse for that to ever happen? Shadow Tag takes a critical look at the life of a family in turmoil and shows its readers how a man and woman so obviously wrong for each other continue to gravitate back towards each other, no matter the consequences for them or their children.

This was a book that I chose for my second book club's (Woodbury Reads) April selection. I don’t often get the chance to read the books that strike my fancy, and after reading so many great reviews all over the blogosphere about this book, I took a chance and unilaterally decided that we would read this book, come hell or high water. I’ve heard a lot about Erdrich in the past, but had assumed that all of her books were sort of tied into one another and dealt a lot with Native American culture. This book had a lot to do with Native Americans as well, as both Gil and Irene were portrayed as characters who had a fraction of Native American bloodline. Erdrich also used this book as a vehicle to share some asides about a very popular Native American artist.

In the early stages of this book, I couldn’t understand why Irene was so antagonistic and cruel to Gil. She’s constantly cutting him off at the knees, and when she decides to create the fictitious diary for Gil’s consumption, I actually thought that she was the villain here. In reality, things were much more complicated, for she was a villain of a kind but a victim as well. Gil dealt with her insouciance and anger by becoming more and more affectionate and loving, and for a moment, I wondered just what was going on behind the scenes with this couple. When I finally discovered just what Gil really was, I was taken aback, because like any abuser, Gil knew how to hide in the crevices of propriety and adoration. There was almost a sense of cognitive dissonance in the way that I related to Irene at times because while I felt her to be perfectly justified in how she was tricking Gil, I also felt that she was at times cruel and unusual in her baiting of him. She was at once willful and unconcerned, a mixture that I found incongruous.

I related to Gil in a different way altogether. At times, it seemed that Gil would not let Irene go for the sake of his art and that he was feeding off of her. Gil knew that Irene was unhappy but refused to believe that, and also, by extension, refused her release. He claimed that the art he was creating “celebrated” her, but it was clearly more cannibalistic than that. Gil remains in a powerful denial throughout the book, and the more he tries to make things right, the more his veneer peels away in layers. Gil, for all his good intentions, is a cruel man, not only to his wife but to his children as well. At times, I wondered if he was delusional about the life he was living, and particularly about his relationship with Irene. When the book winds down to its conclusion, Gil is left without a shred of hope for his family and takes drastic action to wipe it all away. At this point I became frustrated with Irene, for she was incapable of seeing that her freedom was in sight, nor able to extricate herself from Gil's carnivorous and unhealthy appetites.

Each of Gil and Irene’s three children have their own way of dealing with what is going on in their lives and with their parents. They all hang on tenuously, but they are all struggling in their own ways. When things really start to crumble, they react in alarming and uncharacteristic ways, and it’s clear that they are becoming damaged in irreversible ways by all that they see and all that remains hidden. I think it’s also important to mention that in Irene’s fake dairy she finds a way to symbolically liken the confessions she makes into the real life actions that are taking place in her marriage, blurring the lines where the truth ends and the fiction begins. The bottom line is that Gil and Irene are both damaged and damaging people, and their children seem to only be pawns in the game of destruction that they play with each other.

I found this book to be incredibly evocative, and at times, it felt almost as if I was too close to these people, whom anyone could see were emotionally unhealthy. Erdrich manages to create heightened emotions and scenes with an almost terse and sparse style that left me feeling like I was in the ring with these two flailing fighters. This is definitely not a feel-good book, and the conclusion is just as shocking as the slow degradation of the family’s relationship, but it’s a book that I know I will have a hard time forgetting. If I admit it to myself, it was a book that made me feel like a voyeur watching the private horrors that Gil and Irene inflicted upon each other. A very dark but powerful read.

27 comments:

bermudaonion said...

This does sound like a powerful read. Has your book club met to discuss it? I imagine it would make for a great discussion.

Harvee Lau said...

Too bad it was such a dark book. Reading a wife's diary on the sly had possibilities as a good comedy, I had thought on hearing about the book, but it would have disappointed me to read it as a tragedy. Great review!

Mary (Bookfan) said...

You've certainly captured my interest with your review! I'm adding this to my TBR list. I've noticed this author's books around the blogosphere but haven't read any yet. A good one to start with? Maybe?

Man of la Book said...

A book for a reading club I would venture. I like books where everything is not black and white.

http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

Vasilly said...

Wow. I have Shadow Tag but had no idea what it's about. This sounds like a sad but powerful read. I'm moving this up my tbr pile. Louise Erdrich is one of those authors that you hear so many positive things about. Great review.

Suko said...

This sounds excellent. Thank you for another fantastically written review!

Brooke said...

Sounds like not only an excellent book, but a superb selection for book clubs. I really need to add Louise Erdrich's novels to my TBR list.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

You sure do pick dark stuff! This one sounds a bit like Gone Girl...

Nicole said...

This one sounds fascinating. Typically I enjoy books by Louise Erdrich. I'll look for this one.

Stephanie Ward said...

I haven't read anything by this author in many years, and this sounds wonderful. I'm adding it to my list. Wonderful review!

Jenny said...

I've had this one my WL for a while because I've heard great things about this author. This does sound like a powerful read despite it's dark nature. I will have to keep it in mind when I'm in the mood for a dark book. I have another one that I want to read first though for that mood (We Need to Talk About Kevin).. one of these days....

Sandy Nawrot said...

Right I was thinking Gone Girl as well. These two are seriously messed up. Kinda makes you want to lock them both up in a room and let 'em have at each other.

Ti said...

Oh! You did a really nice job with this one. I have already wanted to read her work and our club pitches one of her books nearly every year, but they never make the cut. Not sure why.

I know when I first read the blurb for this one, the fake diary aspect turned me off. It seemed manipulative to me but hearing you speak of it here, I see now that there is more to the story.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've enjoyed everything I've read by this author thus far -- Next up by her will be, The Round House. Her audio books are generally very good.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

You may find yourself reading Erdrich's backlist! I haven't read SHADOW TAG yet, but I must revive my relationship with her books (to give you an idea of how far back we go, I wrote a paper in college that analyzed themes of LOVE MEDICINE and THE BEET QUEEN!).

So, your book group read this novel in April. You clearly were taken by it (not "feel good", but, yes, it stays with you!) ... what was the consensus of the group?

nomadreader said...

I found this one dark and powerful too. I remember reading it early in my marriage, when I was suddenly obsessed with novels about marriages. This one frightened me in many ways, but I adored Erdrich's writing and have been meaning to read more of her work ever since.

Amy said...

Sounds like a powerful read that deals with the truth of abusive relationships. Rather than pulling away, which becomes almost unseeable as even an option, the abused are likely to learn to fight back in whatever small ways they can. Sounds interesting.

Audra said...

Oh -- this sounds good -- messed up! -- but good. I love that you picked this one, however grim -- how did your book club respond?

Beth F said...

I loved this and still think about it. Mr. BFR also read it and it was a great discussion book; there was so much to talk about.

Zibilee said...

For all those who asked, the book club hated it. I thought there was a lot to explore in the emotional depths and the abusive aspects of the relationships, but they didn't like it.

Amy said...

I haven't read anything by Louise Erdrich yet. I have this book on my tbr list and after reading your review I'm hooked...I totally want to read this book.

I'm fascinated by the way Erdrich doesn't let the reader know that Gil's an abusive man early in the book so Irene seems mean. It's also intriguing that after Gil's true nature is revealed, Irene's still isn't completely in the right. I like how realistic this is. Whenever I read news reports about domestic abuse, I immediately feel for the victim, seeing her (him) as completely the good one and the abuser as the bad one but, of course, it's never that simple.
Irene and Gil sound like they're constantly at war even when they're getting along. It must be an incredibly tense home life. I feel for the children.

I like novels about flawed, dysfunctional characters but I'm also interested in Erdrich's writing style. I'm not sure if I've ever read a book that's made me feel like a voyeur, as much as it sounds uncomfortable it also intrigues me.

A fantastic review, Heather...thank you!

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

Oh, this will be a perfect selection for the RIP season! I meant to read this book ages ago and kept forgetting about it. No more delay!

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I have to be honest Heather, I did not like this book AT ALL. I thought it was way too dark, depressing, and it just left me with a horrible feeling. I'm glad to see that you enjoyed it (oh and I did think the writing was excellent) but I did not like it one bit.

Wendy said...

Great review of this book, Heather...I too found it dark, disturbing, unsettling...it was not a book I enjoyed, but one I fully appreciated for the amazing writing which is Erdrich's...for the character development, for the unraveling plot that is sort of like watching a train wreck. I just finished The Plague of Doves and am reminded, once again, why I love Louise Erdrich's amazing body of work.

Lisa said...

Wow! I've seen this one around but apparently I've never really read the description of it. This reminds me of the reaction I had to "We Need To Talk About Kevin," a book that is so dark and disturbing that I couldn't really say I loved it but I cannot forget about it.

Buried In Print said...

I do love it when a book gets under your skin like this; I think it says a lot about the author's skill when you can't look away from that kind of story, although of course it depends on one's reasons for reading how much one enjoys that kind of experience. The idea of keeping parallel diaries particularly intrigues me about this one. I have read her short stories, and one older novel, and have vague intentions of reading the rest of her books, but I keep saying "someday"...

Aarti said...

I've only read one Erdrich book before, and I think my reaction was similar to yours. The characters and situations and pain just got to me so much. The book was beautiful, but I haven't been able to go near Erdrich again. I had a similar reaction to Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I enjoyed it and hope to read more, but am not sure when I'll be ready.

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