by Louise Erdrich
Reviewed by Diana Postlethwaite
Louise Erdrich has crafted a harrowing novel of fire and ice, with love and violence, exhilaration and terror, and the warm security of family rituals alternating unpredictably with chilling outbursts of emotional and physical violence. Shadow Tag's form and content make for disturbing polarities: Erdrich imposes her exquisite mastery of language, imagery and literary form upon the raw and brutal chaos of mental illness, alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Unlike the rich orchestrations of much of her previous fiction, with its expansive explorations of history, storytelling and social communities, Shadow Tag is chamber music in a minor key: two parents and three children, a family in free fall over the course of one Minnesota winter.
Husband and father Gil is a celebrated painter who obsessively takes as his portrait subject Irene, his wife of 15 years: "He painted his pain, her elusiveness, his grasping touch, her rejection, his bitter hope, her sullen rage." Irene, ostensibly a desultory graduate student attempting to finish her dissertation on a l9th-century painter of Native Americana, is a darkly skillful artist in her own right; parts of Shadow Tag are comprised of her "Red Diary" (a cruel, fictional "confession" she knows Gil is secretly reading) and another more truthful but equally troubled version of events in her "Blue Notebook," locked away in a vault.
The autobiographical echoes of Erdrich's marriage to writer Michael Dorris (whose age differences, length of marriage, shared Native American ancestry and collaborative artistry Gil and Irene mirror) will discomfit readers who remember the revelations surrounding Dorris' death. Like Gil and Irene, Erdrich and Dorris were celebrated public figures known for their "iconic," "sexy" marriage. Their divorce impending, Dorris took his life in a New Hampshire motel on April 11, 1997, the day he was to have been honored at the 25th anniversary of the Native American studies program he had founded at Dartmouth -- and the day he was to have been charged with criminal sexual child abuse of his children. The case was closed with his passing. Since then, Erdrich has said little in public about the end of their marriage or about Dorris' suicide.
In her novel, Gil manipulates the family through his charisma and their fear. Irene, more likely to be focusing on a wineglass than her unfinished dissertation, seems incapable of leaving her husband or standing up for her children's safety. Sexually flammable and emotionally frostbitten, their marriage takes center stage in a novel full of secrets and lies, mind games and manic extremes. The fates of Gil and Irene offer neither the comforting moral clarity of melodrama (both do terrible things to themselves and others) nor the catharsis of tragedy (they've got the flaws, but not the nobility). Where Shadow Tag commands a tragic universe is in its heartbreakingly empathetic portrayal of three innocent victims: Florian, 13; Riel, 11; and 6-year-old Stoney. The children are painted with warmth, tenderness and an unsparing understanding of what their parents have done to them.
Diana Postlethwaite is a professor of English at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.