…a tense little masterpiece of marital strife that recalls [Erdrich's] tragic relationship with the poet Michael Dorris. Gossips will trace the story's parallels to the author's life, but for all its voyeuristic temptations, Shadow Tag is no roman a clef, no act of spousal revenge on her estranged husband, who committed suicide in 1997. Instead, Erdrich has done what so many writers can't or won't do in this age of self-exposure: transform her own wrenching experience into a captivating work of fiction that says far more about the universal tragedy of spoiled love than it reveals about her private life.
The Washington Post
Erdrich's bleak latest (after The Plague of Doves) chronicles the collapse of a family. Irene America is a beautiful, introspective woman of Native American ancestry, struggling to finish her dissertation while raising three children. She is married to Gil, a painter whose reputation is built on a series of now iconic portraits of Irene, but who can't break through to the big time, pigeonholed as a Native American painter. Irene's fallen out of love with Gil and discovers that he's been reading her diary, so she begins a new, hidden, diary and uses her original diary as a tool to manipulate Gil. Erdrich deftly alternates between excerpts from these two diaries and third-person narration as she plots the emotional war between Irene and Gil, and Gil's dark side becomes increasingly apparent as Irene, fighting her own alcoholism, struggles to escape. Erdrich ties her various themes together with an intriguing metaphor—riffing on Native American beliefs about portraits as shadows and shadows as souls—while her steady pacing and remarkable insight into the inner lives of children combine to make this a satisfying and compelling novel. (Feb.)
Irene America is a smart, beautiful Minneapolis Ojibwe. Too distracted to finish her doctoral degree, she musters the emotional resources needed to keep two journals. The "Red Diary" is bait, filled with adulterous scenes that Irene uses to push volatile artist husband Gil close enough to the brink that he'll leave her. She unleashes all her rage and frustration in the "Blue Notebook," which she keeps in a bank deposit box. Meanwhile, Gil believes that his obsessive graphic paintings of Irene will somehow lure her back to him. Caught in the crosshairs of their parents' cruel, messy unraveling are 13-year-old Florian, a genius who models his mother's excessive drinking habits; Riel, 11, who believes that only she can hold her disintegrating family together; and sunny little Stoney. VERDICT Erdrich's latest is a brilliant cautionary tale of the shocking havoc willfully destructive, self-centered spouses wreak not only upon themselves but also upon their children. Reading it is like watching a wildfire whose flames are so mesmerizingly beautiful that it's almost easy to ignore the deadly mess left behind. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/09.]—Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Taking a risky leap, Erdrich sets aside the magical-realist style of her many volumes about the Ojibwes (The Red Convertible, 2008 etc.) to write a domestic tragedy set among sophisticated, assimilated, highly educated and successful Native Americans. Gil and Irene live with their kids Florian, Riel and Stony in a seemingly idyllic home in Minneapolis. Gil is a renowned painter, Irene the subject of his graphically revealing portraits. Also a gifted historian, she is currently doing research for her doctorate dissertation about the painter George Catlin. Self-consciously aware of their heritage, Gil (raised in poverty by his white mother after his Native American father's death in Vietnam) and Irene (given a middle-class upbringing by her AIM activist mother) know that observers consider them an iconic couple. But Gil has a habit of brutalizing the children he cherishes, and Irene cannot relinquish the glass of wine always in her hand to protect them. When Irene realizes that Gil has been reading her diary, she feels her soul has been invaded. She begins writing entries to play with his mind, torturing him about an affair he imagines she is having. Obsessed with his love for Irene, Gil thinks that he wants to save the marriage. Irene thinks that she wants to free herself from Gil. Both are lying to themselves. Erdrich's unsparing prose dissects these two deeply flawed characters to show their ugliest selves, yet she allows them each their moments of joy and spiritual respite alone, together and with their children. Into this deeply personal novel about marriage, family and individual identity, she also weaves broader questions about cause and effect in history-specifically the effectCatlin's painting of Native Americans had on them and on him-that resonate within her characters' lives. Readers familiar with Erdrich's personal life may suspect she has written close to the bone here, but she manages the rare achievement of rising above the facts she has incorporated to create a small masterpiece of compelling, painfully moving fiction.
“Read this if: You’re looking for a well-written, well-told tale that is thought- and discussion- provoking.”
Boston Sunday Globe
“A fast-paced novel of exceptional artistic, intellectual, and psychological merit…Nowhere have love’s complications been better illustrated than in the raw honesty of Shadow Tag.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Erdrich offers a portrait that’s convincing…Shadow Tag is wonderfully, painfully readable and revealing.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“A domestic drama that builds an almost thriller-like momentum…A novel as dark and tragic as it is difficult to put down”
“SHADOW TAG is hard to put down...It builds to a spectacular ending with a twist I didn’t see coming...Erdrich has taken a tragedy and turned it into art.”
“SHADOW TAG is compelling…a searing, personal examination of one family that’s falling apart.”
Dallas Morning News
“A page-turner…a most compelling novel”
“ A fierce novel…raw…alive…vividly present…it marks a breakthrough for the author.”
“Muscular and fearless…It is [Erdrich’s] superb telling of this story that makes it real, her stellar writing that brings powerful truth to invented worlds.”
“Gripping…a hushed and haunting tale.”
New York Times Book Review
“A portrait of an ‘iconic’ marriage on its way to dissolution…Erdrich’s unbridled urgency yields startlingly original phrasing as well as flashes of blinding lucidity.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Clear, urgent, deep as a swift river…accomplishes the literary miracle of making a reader ravenous to finish it, while stinging with regret at how soon it must end.”
“An exquisite, character-driven tale…its piercing insights into sex, family, and power are breathtaking…A masterfully concentrated and gripping novel of image and conquest, autonomy and love, inheritance and loss.”
Read an Excerpt
Shadow Tag A Novel
By Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2010 Louise Erdrich
All right reserved.
November 2, 2007
I have two diaries now. The first is the hardbound red Daily Reminder of the type I have been writing in since 1994, when we had Florian. You gave me the first book in order to record my beginning year as a mother. It was very sweet of you. I have written in a book like it ever since. They are hidden in the bottom of a drawer in my office, covered with ribbons and wrapping paper. The latest, the one that interests you at present, is kept in the very back of a file cabinet containing old bank statements, checks left over from defunct accounts, the sorts of things we both vow to shred every year but end up stuffing into files. After quite a lot of searching, I expect, you have found my red diary. You have been reading it in order to discover whether I am deceiving you.
The second diary, what you might call my real diary, is the one I am writing in now.
Today I left the house and drove to the branch of the Wells Fargo Bank that is located in uptown Minneapolis beneath the Sons of Norway Hall. I parked in the customer lot and walked in, through two sets of glass doors, down a spiral staircase, to the safedepositdesk. I tapped a little bell and a woman named Janice appeared. She assisted me in the purchase of a medium-size security box. I paid cash for a year's rental and signed my name, three times for signature verification, on the deposit-box card. I took the key Janice offered. She matched my key to another key and let me into the safe-deposit area. After we slid my box from its place in the wall, she ushered me into one of three private little closets, each containing no more than a desk-height shelf and chair. I closed the door to my private room and removed this blue notebook from the big black leather bag that you gave me for Christmas. Ten or fifteen minutes passed before I could begin. My heart was beating so fast. I couldn't tell if I was experiencing panic, grief, or, possibly, happiness.
As soon as the sound of Irene's car motor vanished into the general low din of the city, Gil sat up. The towel he used to shade his eyes slipped off his face. He often lay down on his studio couch when he needed to refresh his eyes, and sometimes dozed off. He could sleep there for as long as an hour, but more often he jerked awake after fifteen minutes, refreshed and startled, as though he'd been dipped in a cool undergroundstream. He sat up patting for his eyeglasses, which he sometimes balanced on his chest. Sure enough, the wire ovals had fallen onto the floor. He retrieved them, hooked them behind his ears. His thick hair started low on his brow and he swept it straight back, smoothed and retied his short, gray ponytail. He stepped up to the painting of his wife and regarded it. His eyes were close-set, cold, curious, and dark. He pressed a knuckle to his chin. His thin cheeks were flecked with yellow paint.
He peered at Irene's likeness, then he frowned and looked away, blinking like a person who can't quite make out some figure in the distance. Suddenly he bent over, and added a few tense strokes. He stood back, wrapped his brush in an oiled cloth, then put the brush and palette into a Ziploc bag. He deposited the bag in a small refrigerator. Descending hungrily, he left his studio and went downstairs to the kitchen. He took the one can of Coke he allowed himself per day from the refrigerator. Sipping, he descended the rest of the way and entered his wife's basement office. He went at once to the sand-colored metal file cabinet and opened a drawer labeled Old Accts.
November 1, 2007
What an odd day this is with the house so empty and Gil upstairs endlessly reworking a painting. I expect he is having trouble asking me to sit for him again. Flo and Stoney are okay now after fever. Riel never gets sick, but she is having a difficult time at school this year. Stoney is making a board game for some afterschool project that involves the habits of black bears. Very Minnesota. I think I'm going to lose my mind over what I'm doing.
He actually thought he could feel the blood drain from his heart when he read those words. I think I'm going to lose my mind over what I'm doing. He put his head down on the cool oak of Irene's desk, but then thought, as he always did when he came across some hidden reference to the other man, what the hell did I expect? I let myself in for this. I looked for this. He tried to discipline his reaction, and forced himself to consider other explanations: she could be referring to her history thesis. Or that old article on Louis Riel. Before the children, she had published several pieces that were considered brilliant; she was a very promising scholar. Her work had included new material that shed light on Riel's mental states. She'd kept working after Florian was born. But after she became pregnant again, she had abandoned her work—except that she'd named their daughter after the depressed Metis patriot, a man to whom his own family was distantly related. Riel was eleven. And now that Stoney was in first grade, Irene was trying to finish her Ph.D. thesis, so that she could start looking for a job. Her subject was now the nineteenth-century painter of Native Americana George Catlin.
Perhaps she was suffering from academic frustration? Losing her mind—over George Catlin's clumsy, repetitive, earnest depictions of people—all of whom would sicken and die soon after. Gil himself could not bear to look at Catlin's work. The tragic irony of it offended him. And for Irene, a poor excuse....
Excerpted from Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich Copyright © 2010 by Louise Erdrich. Excerpted by permission.
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