By Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins 255 pages, $26
Unlike Louise Erdrich's other novels, which make an immediate, striking impression, Shadow Tag, her thirteenth, starts out slowly. The central character, Irene, has decided to end her stifling marriage to Gil by ensnaring him in a trap. He's broken the rules by reading her diary and instead of confronting him, she decides to give him what he's looking for - a reason to suspect she's deceiving him. To that end, she fills the red diary Gil sneaks down to her office to read with a fictitious account of an affair in Paris in which their youngest child was conceived. A blue notebook, locked in a safe deposit box at the bank, contains Irene's true feelings about Gil and the fatal flaw that she believes wrecked their marriage from the start: "You wish to possess me. And my mistake: I loved you and let you think you could."
The surprising twists the story takes as it alternates between diary entries and short, snapshot-like scenes of the family drama as it unfolds create a tautly layered portrait of a secretive, intensely competitive household. Gil, a successful painter, supports the family with his work, but is losing confidence in his ability to keep it up. Reading Irene's diary on the sly, he comes to believe that "His paintings were hiding from him because Irene was hiding something...He was pretty sure she had married him for his art and then slowly found that his art was no fun to live with."
Irene, struggling to complete her Ph.D. thesis while raising their three children, also models for Gil. Drawing on her Native American roots, he paints portraits of her ancestors, which, though praised by critics, marginalize the work by labeling Gil an American Indian artist who depicts "the iconic suffering of a people."
Irene has a different take on the paintings, but the effect is just as corrosive in terms of cutting her off from her creative life. "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."
Over the month and a half that is the novel's time frame, the respect and trust that Gil and Irene once shared gradually unravels. Irene, who has always harbored a super-human faith in her ability to save her children from anything, fails to deliver when the crucial moment arrives. Alcohol abuse and domestic violence play a part, along with other self-defeating patterns. These are the shadows that disperse rather than direct Gil and Irene's focus, leaving them with no tools for survival in the demon-haunted wilderness that is their marriage.
One night after a snowstorm, Irene, "who loved small disasters," leads her family on an outdoor adventure with candles, to see their neighborhood transformed into a soft, cold white world. They walk to the park, where they play shadow tag on the baseball field. In the novel's pivotal moment, the children run free with the dogs while their parents chase each other's shadows. The game ends with Gil hiding his under a park light. As Irene and the children close in on him, he jumps away from the light and the family disappears in his shadow.
You feel for Irene and Gil - how fragile and unprotected they are, hiding from each other in their claustrophobic house in snowbound Minnesota with their children. The ending of the novel is not entirely convincing, but one can't help admiring Erdrich for this brave effort to use her storytelling gifts to explore her tragic relationship with writer Michael Dorris. Readers will stay with their story because we've been there. We know, just as Irene and Gil do, that you don't get through life with everything going the way you think it will or the way you want it to. Like your shadow, your life gets away from you.
Conan Putnam's fiction has appeared in Sewanee Review, the Seattle Review and Other VoicesCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun