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". . . gripping and heartfelt."
Prolific writer and award-winning novelist Louise Erdrich plots in disturbing parallelisms a drama of human despair between a husband and wife in Shadow Tag.
Irene and Gil are of mixed Native American heritage, both raised by single-parent mothers. Gil is a successful portrait artist. Irene is a historian working on her doctoral thesis. He is fascinated with Rembrandt’s painting of Lucretia, a devoted and virtuous wife. Irene is obsessed with 19th-century portrait artist George Catlin who painted images of American Indians, “all of whom would sicken and die afterwards.”
As the sole model for all Gil’s paintings, Irene sees herself like one of Catlin’s victims because Gil paints her image in ways that “exaggerated human frailties.” His paintings are “starkly sexual, and cruel.” One pose of Irene has her on all fours like a dog, menstruating. All Gil’s paintings of Irene are titled, “American,” distinguished only by a number.
Their volatile relationship worsens when Irene discovers Gil reading her diary. She sets off on a sadistic but thrilling path to torture her husband by writing two diaries, one blue and one red. In the red she describes made-up infidelities. The blue diary is kept in a Minneapolis bank safety deposit box.
Their three children, frightened of their abusive father, become snared in their parents’ battle of hatred and destruction. Gil has no idea how much he hates his wife because he is so “focused on winning back her love.”
Erdrich, daughter of a Chippewa Indian mother, weaves most of her novels around characters of Native Americans of mixed-blood, living in two different cultures. How close this novel mirrors her personal life is perhaps another complex parallelism. She was married to writer Michael Dorris. They collaborated closely, even jointly authored books, until Dorris was accused of child abuse and they divorced. He later committed suicide.
A fan of Erdich’s many novels since The Beet Queen, I believe her characters come from her own memories, deepened by her imagination. Her prose is gripping and heartfelt. Shadow Tag is no exception.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla