When my children were little, their territorial backseat battles once culminated in the memorable complaint from my daughter that her older brother's shadow was touching her. It's a grievance that Irene America, the artist's wife and model at the heart of Louise Erdrich's bleak new novel about a marital dance of death, might well understand. Erdrich borrows a useful metaphor from Ojibwe culture about shadows, mirrors and trapped souls to help describe her characters' suffocating relationship: Irene, no longer in love with her husband, Gil, feels that Gil "had placed his foot on [her] shadow when he painted her. And though she tried to pull away, it was impossible to tug that skein of darkness from under his heel."
Shadow Tag, Erdrich's 13th novel, follows The Plague of Doves, a finalist for last year's Pulitzer Prize. It's a departure for Erdrich, markedly different from her beloved, multigenerational sagas of revenge set on North Dakota reservations. Although it, too, involves mixed-blood Native Americans and searing descriptive passages, Shadow Tag is a narrowly focused domestic tragedy, a linear narrative about a Minneapolis family on the verge of implosion in 2007. Erdrich's portrait of this warped, obsessive relationship raises broader issues about art, privacy and identity.
Irene's struggle to free herself from Gil results in various cat-and-mouse power plays. One of the more intriguing — and chilling — iterations of shadow tag starts when Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary. She begins a secret Blue Notebook, which she hides in a safe-deposit box. But she also uses her original Red Diary, stashed where she knows Gil will find it, to insidiously manipulate his insecurities. She does this by planting supposedly confessional entries about the "real" fathers of their three children and vague suggestions that Gil might be right in suspecting her of having an affair.
Erdrich alternates points of view between her doomed couple and Irene's two diaries. There is also another, omniscient voice whose source is revealed in a somewhat pat, cheapening disclosure at the end. Gil's transgressions, it turns out, go way beyond compromising Irene's privacy with his iconic series of invasive, often pornographic portraits that have brought him fame and fortune. Aggressive and controlling, he tries to make up for his outbursts of violence with lavish gifts. Irene, perpetually drunk on wine, is no better at protecting their children than herself. But the more she pulls away, the more Gil clings.
Erdrich captures not just Irene's misery and the children's lasting trauma but the often beguiling texture of domesticity — dinner, dishes, homework, bedtime. But Shadow Tag is so tightly controlled it feels as manipulative, in its way, as Irene's Red Diary. Reading about the disturbing dynamic between Erdrich's characters, you can't help feeling almost voyeuristic, particularly as you wonder what, if anything, of Erdrich's relationship with her late ex-husband — fellow writer Michael Dorris — is in this devastating portrait. In any event, what Erdrich wants us to take away is what she has Irene come to realize: that however flawed, mean, and crazy, "love is love."