By Gwendolyn Dawson
This bleak novel tracks the slow destruction of a marriage and, ultimately, a family. Irene, a failed historian, and her husband Gil, an artist who’s grown famous off of his revealing portraits of Irene, are the parents of three precocious children, including a math genius and a budding artist. While the love between Irene and Gil is undoubtedly powerful, the couple’s self-destructive, co-dependent tendencies result in constant friction. At the start of the novel, this marriage has already descended into an unhealthy state, and Louise Erdrich masterfully captures Irene’s and Gil’s shared sicknesses without crossing the line into melodrama. The couple’s deliberate ripping apart of their family is unpleasant to witness but profoundly moving nonetheless.
I really wanted to love this book, and is has many wonderful aspects: poetic language, powerful imagery, psychological depth, and the haunting (and surprising) ending, to name just a few. The novel’s harmony, unfortunately, is unsettled by some distracting flaws. Although most of the story is told through Irene’s point of view, Erdrich chooses to switch points of view periodically, and seemingly at random, introducing a jarring incoherence into an otherwise well-structured narrative. The children, even the youngest, say and do things that are absurdly adult. Despite that annoyance, I still found myself empathizing with the improbably wise children, rather than with Irene or Gil, who are intended to be at the emotional center of the story but who are too contemptible to elicit much empathy. Despite these flaws, Shadow Tag nevertheless succeeds as a suspenseful and memorable read.
Shadow Tag is published in the United States by HarperCollins.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License. Her reviews appear there and here every Wednesday.