‘Shadow Tag’ by Louise Erdrich


This is not the kind of novel I expected from Louise Erdrich. Gone are the multi-generational saga, the tense relationships between whites and native Americans, the lush language, the glowing scenes of magical realism.

She has put herself on a literary diet.

“Shadow Tag” is a somber novel of “huis clos” -- that hell is other people -- written in a style of sober, mostly un-metaphorical bluntness. There are only five characters, largely confined to one house, within the short span of two months. They are the members of a family: Gil and Irene have three children -- Florian, 14; Riel, 11; and Stoney, 6.

Gil is a semi-famous painter who has for 15 years painted the same subject, his wife. Each of the canvases is named “America,” for that is Irene’s last name. She has become the incarnation of womanhood in all its phases, from the virginal to the maternal to the pornographic. He has painted her proud, humiliated, suffering: symbolic of the fate of the Native American tribes to which they both belong. He is bitter about the nature of his fame, which has marked him with a racial asterisk that implies a less-than-universal reach.

A more profound problem lies in Irene’s increasing remoteness and her resistance to him, as painter and husband. She feels most herself in the bath, where her nakedness belongs only to her. “By remaining still, in one position or another for her husband, she had released a double into the world. It was impossible, now, to withdraw that reflection. Gil owned it. He had stepped on her shadow” which in the Ojibwe language can mean mirror or soul as well as “that skein of darkness . . . under his heel.”

Irene feels trapped and stifled, especially when she realizes he has been reading her diary. She buys a new one, a blue book she hides in a bank deposit box, while she now uses the old, red-covered one to tease and torment her husband, implying, for example, that she is having an affair. She also confesses in it that she stopped loving him abruptly on a specific date. Reading this, Gil immediately understands. Stoney was born on Sept. 11, 2001, and the distracted and fascinated father-to-be kept abandoning his laboring wife to watch the disaster on TV.

She now tells him she wants him to leave, and that she wants a divorce. He can’t bring himself to believe her. He believes that a moment, the right moment will allow him to pierce through all the animosities and misunderstandings to reawaken her heart. Irene ruefully confides in the blue notebook, “you are an unlucky thirteen years older than me. But here is the most telling thing: you wish to possess me. And my mistake; I loved you and let you think you could.”

It seems, though, that Irene is ambivalent. She tries to wound his soul as he has wounded hers, but in their conflict and constant push-pull, they are both caught obsessively in a tangle of love -- or is it only lust? -- and hate.

When Gil tries to woo her with a piece of jewelry that she refuses, he throws the gift box in her face. She, apparently knowing from experience that his aggression would escalate, grabs a lamp and wields it like a club.

Neither of them understands how they are affecting their children.

Stoney, a sweet boy, comforts himself with drawing, but at night often crawls into brother Florian’s bed for safety against the “shifting, shapeless dark.” He draws his mother repeatedly with an appendage at the end of her hand: Gil informs Irene that it’s the wine glass she’s never without.

Florian distances himself behind contemptuous insolence. But it’s the girl, Riel, who suffers the most.

Displacing her fears onto outside dangers, she decides it is she who is destined to save her family from some looming disaster, like another terrorist attack. Modeling herself on tales of Indian courage and survival tactics, she determines to become “a girl of depth, strength, cunning and truth.” She begins a diary of her own, trying to record all her memories and experiences to form some narrative that would give meaning to her family’s life.

How will it end, this story of two people who snarl at each other, manipulate each other, who can’t stand to be either together or apart? The shocking climax, though it feels emotionally right, has rather too much melodrama.

There are three points of view: Irene’s, Gil’s and an omniscient narrator’s whose identity is revealed in the coda. The revelation, although subtly prepared for, also comes as somewhat of a shock. I left the novel with mixed feelings. Despite its psychological acuity, and the tenderness the author has for the kids, I mostly felt trapped in a stifling space with a rather unlikable couple. I hope that in her next novel, Erdrich opens some windows.

Frase is a critic and reviewer.