93 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocative, visceral, inflammatory
I was floored that Louise Erdrich did not win the Pulitzer this year for her magnum opus, The Plague of Doves: A Novel (P.S.). That novel doubtlessly cemented her as a peerless wordsmith and unrivaled postmodern writer of satire cum tragedy. Her dazzling metaphors--pataphors, actually, place her in a pedigree by herself. She combines ripples of Philip Roth, undertones of...
Published on November 19, 2009 by "switterbug" Betsey Va...
37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars curious detachment
I originally reviewed this book a few days ago, but in thinking about it, I like it less than I thought, and have taken away a star. I kept wanting to care about these characters, and it never happened. Erdrich has the power to make her readers care about her frequently very flawed characters, and it's just lacking here. Gil and Irene just aren't very likable. In...
Published on March 4, 2010 by Amazon Customer
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93 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocative, visceral, inflammatory,
I was floored that Louise Erdrich did not win the Pulitzer this year for her magnum opus, The Plague of Doves: A Novel (P.S.). That novel doubtlessly cemented her as a peerless wordsmith and unrivaled postmodern writer of satire cum tragedy. Her dazzling metaphors--pataphors, actually, place her in a pedigree by herself. She combines ripples of Philip Roth, undertones of Nabakov and the mythical, regional realism of Faulkner. Her locale is often within the Ojibwe Native populations of North Dakota, as in The Beet Queen: A Novel (P.S.) and Love Medicine (P.S.) (as well as Plague of Doves). She has mastered the multiple-narrative voice, braiding multi-generations of families into an innovative whole.
In a striking departure from her previous work, Erdrich's Shadow Tag is a psychological examination of a marriage and family on the brittle brink of decay. Instead of the focus being on ancestral histories and buried secrets, the focus is on one family--Gil and Irene and their three young children--and their private devastations. Gil is an artist who achieved substantial success painting portraits of Irene, some of them deeply disturbing. Irene has resumed her doctoral thesis on a 19th century Native American painter whose subjects have died soon after being painted. This provides a stunning metaphor and theme for the title, Shadow Tag, a game where each person tries to step on the others' shadow, while protecting their own. Native peoples believe that their shadow is their soul. To step on their shadow or to paint their portrait is to steal their soul. Irene is one-half native and Gil is one-quarter, a fact that adds a personal engagement with the lore.
Gil possesses a stealthy, dangerous charm; he is haunted by jealousy and lashes out physically at their son, Florian. Irene, a tall, arresting beauty, drinks wine like water and keeps two diaries. She leaves a false, incendiary Red Diary for Gil to find (she is meting out punishment for his invasion of her privacy) and the true Blue one hidden in a bank vault. Gil and Irene inflict mental, emotional, and physical pain on each other as they struggle individually to maintain control.
Although narrated in the third person, the unreliable voices of Gil and Irene are woven in variously--through their introspection; by Irene's diaries; and from the children's uncertainties. The shocking candor of their actions is mired in dark motivation and murky intentions. A maddening cat and mouse game ensues; the Muse is a jealous mistress and will not be ignored. As Gil agitates over his final portrait of Irene, and Irene skillfully undermines Gil, a menacing cloud is cast over the family.
Erdrich controls her narrative with razor precision, deftly restraining and then escalating the spaces between words to arouse and intensify the reading experience. The prose is starkly sensuous, lean and taut, nuanced but inflammatory. The characters connect with a singed, bitter bite and a sable, blighted love. If you require "likeable" characters that are moral exemplars, this novel is not for you. However, if you want to sink your teeth into a bald and naked exploration of a shattered marriage, etched with moral ambiguity, you will not be disappointed. Moreover, the ending will stagger you with its poetic brilliance. It is one of the most thought-provoking final pages I have experienced in eons. A mouth-watering treat for literature lovers.
37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars curious detachment,
I originally reviewed this book a few days ago, but in thinking about it, I like it less than I thought, and have taken away a star. I kept wanting to care about these characters, and it never happened. Erdrich has the power to make her readers care about her frequently very flawed characters, and it's just lacking here. Gil and Irene just aren't very likable. In fact, I think Irene is down-right cruel--creating a fake diary that she knows Gil will read, saying that the children are not his is just despicable. The ending was just awful. It feels like a very angry book. I heard her interviewed, and she said if she had been going to write about her marrage to Michael Doris, she would have done it a long time ago. I wonder, though, if there IS a lot of rage here.
I finished the book feeling empty and disappointed. Usually, when one of her books is less than satisfying on the plot level, I still enjoy her wonderful use of language, the way she lays the words down on the page, but that's not working here either. I was also disappointed by her last book, "A Plague of Doves," but I appreciated her skill with the words. Despite all the criticism, I'll keep reading her though because there have been so many wonderul books, and I'm sure she will come through again. I'll hope for another "Love Medicine," "Last Report," "Painted Drum," "Tales of Burning Love," or "Master Butcher's Singing Club."
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Love Is A Battlefield--And A Bloody One At That,
Louise Erdrich's "Shadow Tag" may be one of the most unrepentantly bleak novels about a marriage in dissolution and a family in crisis that I have ever encountered--and yet it is also provocatively fascinating. Unlike most readers that will be picking up this book, I am came to "Shadow Tag" with a fresh pair of eyes and no preconceived notions. I have read none of Erdrich's previous novels, but her pedigree is certainly impressive having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for "The Plague of Doves." Written beautifully, "Shadow Tag" is a raw, angry, and real portrait of two people inextricably linked through love and hate. With three children in the cross hairs, the central couple in Erdrich's searing novel have turned the family home into a psychological battlefield. And Erdrich puts the reader right in the middle of this contemporary hell. And as much as I sometimes wanted to look away, I was compelled by Erdrich's unflinching honesty and lyrical storytelling.
Irene and her husband Gil would seem to have it all--money, health, kids--a perfect idealization of the American dream. Gil, an enormously successful painter, has made his career on his devotion to/obsession with Irene. His revealing portraits of her, from the tender to the obscene, have distinguished him in the art world but, at the same time, started to usurp Irene's own individuality and identity. Sinking into alcoholism to help deal with Gil's sporadically violent tendencies, the two embark on a classically dysfunctional relationship. When Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary, she engages in a new kind torment. She starts to record entries with the sole purpose of devastating everything Gil values to be the truth. This merciless new game is what will ultimately bring the family to the point of no return.
"Shadow Tag" is a tremendously gut-wrenching novel. Its unpleasantness may not be for everyone, but its emotions are real and well earned. Neither Gil nor Irene is a villain or a hero in this piece, and the children are suitably complex and believably traumatized. On an intellectual level, everyone in the family knows what needs to happen. But, as often is the case, intellect does not rule the day and messy emotions take over. From love to hate to jealousy to pride to vengeance--Erdrich spares no one in this uncompromising tale of a family on the brink of disaster. And the journey is well worth the reader's investment.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I'm Stopping Today,
I tried so hard to get through this book. I have this "thing" about finishing what I start. I began to dread picking it up to read a few pages each night. Somehow I managed to get halfway through. I cannot connect to any character in this story. I am not even sure what the story is, actually. The diary entries are almost non-existent. Reading this book takes an effort, since there are no quotation marks around the characters speech. This is not the first book I've read in this style (I don't understand the point of no quotes), but with a lack of storyline, characters you never get to know, and two diaries which are hardly ever mentioned, it feels like a chore reading it. I don't care how it ends or what happens to these people. I am done with it.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Innovative But Joyless,
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If shadows are a metaphor for the partial representations or projections of ourselves that we offer to the world, three shadows play a grim game of tag in Louise Erdrich's "Shadow Tag." Two of the shadows are the two diaries kept by Irene America, a mother whose husband is a successful painter.
When Irene learns that her husband reads her diary, she begins to write in a different way, intentionally including remarks to humiliate him and to coax him to leave her. This is her red diary. At the same time, she begins her blue diary, in which she speaks the truth. This is an innovative structural technique, reminiscent of the old epistolary novel and also of the old theme of the doppelganger. Here the Jekyll and Hyde are the two diaries.
A third set of shadows consists of the husband's paintings, all of which are of Irene, many of them uncomplimentary. The novel might well have been titled "Shadow Wars."
While "Shadow Tag" is interesting in its way of deploying these representations against one another, there's an insular joylessness to it all. The male is petty and cruel, even in the "shadows" cast by the third person narrator. It may be a weakness of the novel that the diaries are supplemented by third person narration, especially since this "objective" narrator is very much in alliance with Irene. The anti-male bias is not as blatant as in, say, Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, but it's there nonetheless.
Erdrich's novel refers, as usual, to Native American concerns and to Native American selfhood in today's world, but on the whole the book shadows forth a small world populated by unpleasant people.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Suprisingly boring!,
I've read all of Erdrich's adult novels, loved 'em all until now. Shadow Tag is boring, with annoyingly self-absorbed characters without any insight into themselves or their actions. They don't do anything interesting, just fumble through their privileged lives and turn on each other and their children. I feel as though she's trying to explore a theme of some sort, but the story is too mundane to convey much of anything. Even her beautiful command of language fails; sentences are clunky and opaque. I deeply hope this novel is just a one-off she had to get out of her system. Other reviewers have called this book "dark", but it's not, not in the way of her previous stories which are complex, glamorous (Fleur!), and full of sympathetic humanity (Nanapush). Irene and Gil from Shadow Tag have already sold out and even Erdrich trashes them in the end.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sure to earn Erdrich a Pulitzer Prize,
Arguably best known for the New York Times bestseller THE PLAGUE OF DOVES and my personal favorite, THE PAINTED DRUM, Louise Erdrich earned the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is an American literary treasure. With an impeccable plot, rich prose and timeless questions about love adroitly answered, SHADOW TAG bleakly examines the mechanics of love and illusive personal identity in this noir tale of secrets and betrayal. That examination reveals that "[e]nduring love comes when we love most of what we learn about the other person and can tolerate the faults they cannot change."
Protagonist Irene America explores the nature of love --- and trust --- when trying to establish her personal identity in a quagmired marriage, while quasi-celebrity artist/husband Gil assumes Irene's infidelity and reads her private diary. Gil violates a basic trust, and Irene manipulates him with information in the Red Diary that she knows he reads. Squirreled away in a bank safe-deposit box, the secret Blue Notebook reveals more of Irene than Gil's "starkly sexual" paintings of her without which he never may have acquired artistic fame. Financially secure Gil woefully compensates for violent outbursts and physical abuse with lavish gifts. Reminiscent of THE PEA AND THE PRINCESS, Gil can "feel a hair beneath a piece of paper." Presumably to show how sensitive he can be but on a physical level.
There is mention of a spontaneous one-time fling that Irene cannot erase --- from the Blue Notebook or her conscience. Other than that, she is "faithful to Gil for the obvious reasons": her three children. His expensive gifts are reluctantly accepted, but it is the simple game of playing shadow tag as a family that has all of them feeling as though they are one. References are made about Gil's portraits being like shadows of the souls of her Indian forbearers. That is on a cerebral level far beyond my ability to accurately interpret. How can I capture in one sentence the pain of being a surviving descendant of genocide?
While Gil grew up with witless TV sitcom drivel, Irene matured with Shakespearean tragedies but never the Bard's comedies. Fitting, given what befell Irene's (and Erdrich's) Native American heritage and peoples --- not only in this country but all of the Americas. Erdrich's novels have key characters descended from various tribes. She relates poignant lessons from that history to Irene's present ensnared marriage, along with her keen insight into the complex workings of a child's mind. To punish Gil for not releasing her from the marriage and allowing her to take the children, Irene coldly writes in the Red Diary: "None of the children have one molecule in common with Gil." Belatedly, Irene learns that "they argued sometimes for comfort." She sets a course for calculated, diabolical revenge.
Irene justifies excessive alcohol use, which she says is to ease the pain of being trapped in a tragic marriage. She doesn't realize that she's slipped into alcoholism even when teenage son Florian follows in her path with wine and drugs. The wunderkind is also trapped when he suffers physical abuse from Gil and blames Irene for being weak. Sorry, Mom, said Florian in a cold, bored voice. Why don't you just have another drink and go to bed? So fluid is the transition between third-person narration and dialogue without quotation marks that you wonder why they've ever been used. This lack of punctuation is consistent with text in a diary. Erdrich's words without the familiar marks are as seamless as watching a movie, knowing which character is speaking --- and the visual impact those words have.
At the end of this compelling novel, readers realize that they, like Gil, have violated a trust by reading the Red Diary and Blue Notebook. Unlike Gil, they have the ability to learn about true love, respect for others and the lost art of trust. How we come to read the diaries is the brilliance that makes SHADOW TAG bestseller bound, and sure to earn Erdrich a Pulitzer Prize, not just a nomination.
--- Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy (DeanMurphy@Verizon.net)
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A novel that almost breaks the reader,
In controlled, spare prose, Erdrich lays bare the marriage between Irene, a woman who hates her husband, and Gil, the narcissistic man who can't bear to lose her. The story is told with surprising kindness towards the plight of Gil, the overbearing artist whose career is painting the wife he longs to suffocate. Erdrich's portrait of him has no mercy, but it does have great sympathy, even while coldly dissecting him. Less sympathetic is Irene, who will not take the steps she must to protect herself and her kids, sunk as she is in drinking.
This is a grim book. The marriage melts like ice, and as the cracks appear, it is the three children in this family who are the most damaged by the blows their parents keep inflicting on each other. Florian, Riel and Stoney all cope with their father's violence and their mother's alcoholic withdrawal with heartbreaking resourcefulness.
The only way to handle such a painful story is to tell it so beautifully that a reader has no choice but to keep reading, and Erdrich certainly accomplishes that here. Her telling is so measured, so cool, and ultimately unforgiving. Erdrich is not allowing any of her characters an out; no excuses, no mitigation, just a calm, dispassionate and very realistic portrait of a marriage gone horibly, destructively awry.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, provocative yet self-absorbed,
Irene America knows her artist husband Gill reads her diary. Already there is little privacy between them. She is the fury and muse upon which his paintings depend. Knowing he has broken into her private space, she uses that knowledge to manipulate him. She writes in her red journal what she wants him to hear while keeping a blue journal locked away from his gaze. Irene attempts to free herself from her husband's grasp through the journal and through innuendo. As the marriage fails, sinking into cruelty, addiction and even abuse, the children react with various responses.
SHADOW TAG is a provocative novel, inspiring love and hatred in readers and for some readers, like myself, a mixture of both. As in previous novels, Louise Erdrich's prose has a poetic textual beauty. Absent are quotation marks and traditional textual conventions and yet the language flows with a powerful ability to plunge the reader into the dynamics of the relationship. Several references to Native-American culture add a spiritual dimension to the sometimes trivial surface dance between the characters' actions. As the marriage falls apart, the author's powerful storytelling brings the reader into the scenes. Neither Gil not Irene are likable, sympathetic characters. Louise Erdrich does an excellent job in showing how the marriage has destroyed Irene from the inside. Irene, however, is no innocent martyr. Her passive aggressive cruelty elicits a certain contempt. At times, one feels a certain sympathy for Gil in response to her restrained attacks, and yet, Gil's actions and his artistic obsession equally repulse. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this novel emerges at the end as the author adds narrative layers to the journals and previous third person story. For those fascinated by literary criticism, the novel SHADOW TAG poses intriguing questions about art and narrative, of subject and object, of the gaze, and the relationship between art and desire. For all those reasons, SHADOW TAG fascinates this reader.
At the same time, SHADOW TAG might repel readers for a variety of reasons, the least of which is guided by the romance genre's expectations of likable characters and a happy ending, a genre to which this novel clearly does not belong or pretend. On one level, the novel has a self-indulgent tone that trivializes both the marriage and the artwork with overblown references to the obsession of the artist mixed among Irene's passive attempts to break away. Louise Erdrich creates a powerful look into the spiraling inward focus of a bad marriage and the artist's relationship to Irene as the object of paintings more than as a woman, but in the end, the inward look creates a banality and triteness that diminishes the power of the ending. Even the Native-American references lack the force conveyed by cultural references in the author's previous works. I find it most difficult to review this book given my widely diverging responses to this novel. Undoubtedly, others will find themselves loving or hating the novel or just ambivalent based on their own interests and reading history. Though in the past, I have eagerly awaited the opportunity to lose myself in Louise Erdrich's magical lyricism, SHADOW TAG's self-absorption takes precedence despite the emotional power and the fascinating intellectual literary questions it poses.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Left Me Wanting More,
Louise Erdrich has written a lot of great novels,but I do not think that people will include Shadow Tag in that list. The problem is that this book never really develops much in the way of a specific point of tension. She is not in a moment of anxiety. Do you see the difference? When a novel steps back and removes the reader from the defining events that characterize a period in a character's life, then the author is doing more "telling" and not enough "showing."
The story itself is very intriguing, and I suppose that is why I wanted to read it. Short summary: Irene is trapped in a marriage with her older husband, Gil, that is without life. They bicker mainly because they aren't happy themselves. That makes it a fictional account of a real-life tragedy.
Irene is the narrator in two parts of the book. The book includes narratives from two different diaries. This is the construction that is going to make this book attractive to literary editors. It is unusual to have a reliable and a non-reliable narrator, and it is even more unusual to have the non-reliable narrator's viewpoints inserted into the story itself. That is what happens here, though, because Irene's non-reliable narrative is left out for Gil to find. In the found diary, Irene acts out her frustration in a way that she can't in real life. She has affairs, she speaks her mind, she calls Gil on his stuff.
There's another very real story within this fiction. While Gil can move past their dysfunction and pursue a successful career, Irene struggles through a prolonged graduate school endeavor. Erdrich is famous for her feminism, and this is an all-too-common problem that divides spouses.
So all of this should tell you that while there are some important themes in this book, that it still has some shortcomings. I is full of importa, but not that entertaining. There is a great scene in Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams, playing the role of an English teacher, reads a text that encourages the students to critique literature on an x-y axis. X should measure the skill of the writing, y should measure the importance of the topic. Williams makes fun of that kind of silliness. But I think that novels need to entertain. If you can show me a good story, then I can understand your point of view. But you have to draw me in first.
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Shadow Tag: A Novel by Louise Erdrich (Hardcover - February 2, 2010)
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