A Domestic Tragedy

#11: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

After a perfunctory reading of Love Medicine in school I never thought I’d ever touch Louise Erdrich again.  However, I am very glad I took advantage of Erdrich’s latest offering, Shadow Tag.  The novel is essentially a domestic drama, the nuts and bolts that comprise a failed marriage.  The novel centers around Gil and Irene, a husband and wife bonded by their relationship to Gil’s art: Gil is the painter and Irene is the subject.  Irene believes they were once complements to each other, creating symmetry, but years of marriage and three children teach her that after all, they are utterly incompatible.

For me, navigating the narrative voice of the novel is the book’s greatest asset.  Woven throughout an expert third person narrrative are the texts of Irene’s two journals: termed the red and the blue.  The red journal is what sets off the action of the novel.  Irene discovers that Gil has been secretly reading the red journal, which originally served as her private diary.  Instead of confronting her husband Irene uses the diary instead as a tool of cruel manipulation.  The blue journal is a diary locked away in a bank, containing Irene’s true thoughts and emotions.  One of my few complaints of the novel is that there were not enough excerpts from this narrative.  Though the third person portion of the text validates the truths and lies and the red diary, the voice of the blue diary is haunting in tone and is very enjoyable to read.  Within these various points of view the tragic plot unfolds, the cognizant narrative voice becomes clear and the true context of the novel is established.

As the title suggests, the primary theme of the novel is shadows.  As Erdrich demonstrates with her previous work surrounding the American Indian community, shadows represent a deeply spiritual aspect of one’s identity.  In Shadow Tag, Irene articulates her belief that by controlling her image through his art, Gil is stepping on her shadow, both possessing and manipulating her identity.   In doing so, Gil’s behavior raises questions regarding the vocation of art, the artistic disposition, privacy and human compatibility.

One problem I encountered while reading involved negotiating the timeline of the story.  We learn via Irene’s diary entries that the end game of marriage unfolds between Fall 2007 and Spring 2008.  However, the end of the novel reveals that much time has passed since then, a minimum of ten years, placing the writing of the story in approximately 2017.  The allusions in the novel seem to contradict this, referencing clearly present-day points of cultural interest.

Overall, I found this book to be refreshingly readable.  The plot is quick and entices the reader to keep going until the end.  Throughout the entire book I  found myself constantly ruminating on what a great movie the story would make.  I would even venture to cast someone like Jeff Bridges as ideal for the character of Gil.  As a result, this book is a great treat for nearly anyone.

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