Louise Erdrich’s new novel opens with an intriguing premise: a wife, knowing that her abusive husband is secretly reading her diary, decides to use those journal entries to manipulate him; at the same time, she starts to keep a second, “real” diary which is locked in a safe deposit box. Shadow Tag is an experience in domestic terror — one doesn’t so much read this book as recover from it.
Irene America and her husband Gil are near the exhaustive end of their marriage. Gil, a renowned painter, has been called “a Native Edward Hopper.” Irene, ten years his junior, is the subject of his paintings “in all of her incarnations — thin and virginal, a girl, then womanly, pregnant, naked, demurely posed or frankly pornographic.” Gil’s most recent work, America 4, has just sold for six figures. With their three gifted children, ages six, eleven, and fourteen, they should be living the American Dream.
Instead, it’s a nightmare in a house polluted with abuse, insecurity, and screaming matches. It’s no wonder that Irene, reflecting on their marriage, writes to Gil in her clandestine diary: “You wish to possess me. And my mistake: I loved you and let you think you could.”
Gil the possessor suddenly finds his grip on his wife slipping. He doesn’t know about her second diary, but he can sense her growing power over him and it starts to impact his work in the studio.
But now he was losing confidence and control. His paintings were hiding from him because Irene was hiding something. He could see it in the opacity of her eyes, the insolence of her flesh, the impatient weariness of her body when she let down her guard. She’d ceased to love him. Her gaze was an airless void.
The paintings, like Gil himself, are alternately cruel and tender. In one, he depicts Irene on all fours, snarling like a dog, while menstrual blood drips down her thighs. In another, she’s “a creature from the Eden of this continent, covered with moss and leaves.”
Irene has her own streak of cruelty, delighting in the way she manipulates her husband through the false diary. She pretends to have an affair and calls Gil’s fatherhood into question, knowing it will ignite his volatile jealousy.
Though Erdrich doesn’t exploit the dual-diary deception to the novel’s advantage (an entire narrative of just the two journals would have been more interesting, structurally speaking), Shadow Tag‘s narrative is more focused than many of Erdrich’s other novels. Gone is the rambling chorus of voices which have drawn comparisons to Faulkner; instead, there is a keener urgency at work, practically forcing the reader through the pages at knife-point. Though it would be wrenching to do so, it’s possible to read Shadow Tag in one sitting. I suggest taking at least two days to fully absorb the emotional impact of the spectacle of this crumbling family.
Though the novel invites the reader’s sympathies to lean toward Irene, it’s hard to take sides in this marriage. Both partners are duplicitous, neither is blameless: they are wedded to each other through guilt, fear, betrayal, and violence both physical and emotional. Irene tells their marriage counselor the relationship is “fractured and hurting and sick.” Gil thinks they’re “beautiful…imperfect, but extraordinary.”
In the end, what they are is tragic. As the novel draws to a close, Erdrich enlarges events to Shakespearean proportions, showing the sacrifices that must be made to preserve a sense of self in a marriage. Gil tells Irene at one point, “No one gets out of here alive.” By the same token, no one will finish the book unshaken.