Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Book review: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

Goodreads summary: “When Irene America discovers that her husband, Gil, has been reading her diary, she begins a secret Blue Notebook, stashed securely in a safe-deposit box. There she records the truth about her life and her marriage, while turning her Red Diary–hidden where Gil will find it–into a manipulative farce. Alternating between these two records, complemented by unflinching third-person narration, “Shadow Tag” is an eerily gripping read.
When the novel opens, Irene is resuming work on her doctoral thesis about George Catlin, the nineteenth-century painter whose Native American subjects often regarded his portraits with suspicious wonder. Gil, who gained notoriety as an artist through his emotionally revealing portraits of his wife–work that is adoring, sensual, and humiliating, even shocking–realizes that his fear of losing Irene may force him to create the defining work of his career.

Meanwhile, Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three children: fourteen-year-old genius Florian, who escapes his family’s unraveling with joints and a stolen bottle of wine; Riel, their only daughter, an eleven-year-old feverishly planning to preserve her family, no matter what disaster strikes; and sweet kindergartener Stoney, who was born, his parents come to realize, at the beginning of the end.”

I feel like I’ve read about several duplicitous diaries lately! Shadow Tag was a pretty uncompromising read with its depiction of alcoholism, abuse, negligence, and some sexual assault thrown in for good measure. Generally, I gravitate toward genre or high-concept books, so I don’t always have a lot to say about books like this, which throw reality in my face like a bucket of ice water. This is a definitely WYSIWYG novel; if the plot description above intrigues you, you’ll enjoy the way the story unfolds (if not the bleak content.) None of my waffling on this review should be taken as a negative assessment, though. I’m actually interested in checking out Erdrich’s other work, as this was really well-written, with evocative imagery and a sense of profundity without pompousness.

Altogether, I recommend this book. It’s a fairly short read, and even with the heavy themes, I got through it very quickly. This, it should be mentioned, is definite praise for Erdrich. Where often I can only handle so much of a sad story at a time, I actually had trouble putting Shadow Tag down. Despite the ominous feeling that it wasn’t going to end in happiness for Irene, I was drawn to her and felt compelled to stay with her, even through her manipulations. I admire the way that Erdrich fleshed out her characters (even the children) so thoroughly in fewer than 300 pages. As I said before, definitely pick this up if you’re in the mood.

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