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.