Merrimon Book Reviews

George Catlin (1849) by William Frisk

Lucretia by Rembrandt

Austrian theoretical physicist who achieved fame for his contributions to quantum mechanics, especially the Schrödinger equation, for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1933.

From Merrimon Book Reviews
Shadow Tag
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich
by Louise Erdrich

Powerful, provocative yet self-absorbed
Irene America knows her artist husband Gill reads her diary.  Already there is little privacy between them.  She is the fury and muse upon which his paintings depend.  Knowing he has broken into her private space, she uses that knowledge to manipulate him.  She writes in her red journal what she wants him to hear while keeping a blue journal locked away from his gaze.  Irene attempts to free herself from her husband's grasp through the journal and through innuendo.  As the marriage fails, sinking into cruelty, addiction and even abuse, the children react with various responses.

SHADOW TAG is a provocative novel, inspiring love and hatred in readers and for some readers, like myself, a mixture of both.  As in previous novels, Louise Erdrich's prose has a poetic textual beauty.  Absent are quotation marks and traditional textual conventions and yet the language flows with a powerful ability to plunge the reader into the dynamics of the relationship.  Several references to Native-American culture add a spiritual dimension to the sometimes trivial surface dance between the characters' actions.  As the marriage falls apart, the author's powerful storytelling brings the reader into the scenes. Neither Gil not Irene are likable, sympathetic characters.  Louise Erdrich does an excellent job in showing how the marriage has destroyed Irene from the inside.  Irene, however, is no innocent martyr.  Her passive aggressive cruelty elicits a certain contempt.  At times, one feels a certain sympathy for Gil in response to her restrained attacks, and yet, Gil's actions and his artistic obsession equally repulse.  Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this novel emerges at the end as the author adds narrative layers to the journals and previous third person story. For those fascinated by literary criticism, the novel SHADOW TAG poses intriguing questions about art and narrative, of subject and object, of the gaze, and the relationship between art and desire.  For all those reasons, SHADOW TAG fascinates this reader.

At the same time, SHADOW TAG might repel readers for a variety of reasons, the least of which is guided by the romance genre's expectations of likable characters and a happy ending, a genre to which this novel clearly does not belong or pretend.  On one level, the novel has a self-indulgent tone that trivializes both the marriage and the artwork with overblown references to the obsession of the artist mixed among Irene's passive attempts to break away.  Louise Erdrich creates a powerful look into the spiraling inward focus of a bad marriage and the artist's relationship to Irene as the object of paintings more than as a woman, but in the end, the inward look creates a banality and triteness that diminishes the power of the ending. Even the Native-American references lack the force conveyed by cultural references in the author's previous works.  I find it most difficult to review this book given my widely diverging responses to this novel.  Undoubtedly, others will find themselves loving or hating the novel or just ambivalent based on their own interests and reading history.  Though in the past, I have eagerly awaited the opportunity to lose myself in Louise Erdrich's magical lyricism, SHADOW TAG's self-absorption takes precedence despite the emotional power and the fascinating intellectual literary questions it poses.

Publisher: Harper (February 2, 2010)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
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