Something's missing from Erdrich's novel of troubled family

Fiction: "Shadow Tag," by Louise Erdrich. Harper, $25.99.

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Irene America is the destructive and unhappy woman at the heart of Louise Erdrich's latest novel, "Shadow Tag." We encounter Irene, her husband Gil and their three children at an explosive point in their family life.

Gil is a painter who has earned his reputation with dramatic and disturbing paintings of his wife. Irene is a longtime graduate student trying to finish her doctorate, but who is feeling hopeless about completing it.

She also no longer loves Gil. Sensing his reduced status in the family's hierarchy, he takes out his anger abusively on the children, particularly the oldest son.

When Irene learns that Gil has been reading her diary, she starts a new one that she stores in a bank vault.

This is an intense narrative. Irene's anger is volatile; Gil's rage is palpable. But too much is left unexplored and the reason for their despair is never uncovered. There are hints that something sinister is afloat with references to past injustices that seem to push the narrative toward a revelation, but by the novel's end it's never clarified.

The reader is left never knowing and understanding why their marriage has so disintegrated. Irene reveals, at one point, that she's distressed about what happened on 9/11 when she was delivering their child and Gil, it seems, was more transfixed by the television coverage. If his distraction is the reason for her fury, then she comes off as unstable.

By Louise Erdrich
Harper ($25.99)

The title of the book refers to a game the family plays but also reflects the Native American belief that one's shadow is a reflection of the soul. With her Native American heritage, Ms. Erdrich refers frequently to those themes in her fiction.

The family playing the game in the dark cannot help but step on each other's shadows in the day's dying light, but this game feels over, the desire to be together damaged beyond repair.

Things don't connect or add up the way one expects from a master storyteller such as Louise Erdrich. As a result, the novel reads as an outline to a novel rather than as a finished piece.

Gil invites a woman over to paint clouds on their son's bedroom walls. Irene, at first, suspects her of having had an affair with Gil, but the woman is gay with no designs on her husband.

Later Irene will discover that she and the woman share the same father, a detail that should prove much more important than it does. The woman returns at the end of the novel but the impact of having a half sister never plays into Irene's narrative.

One almost wonders if Ms. Erdrich didn't write the other half of this novel and lock it in a bank vault somewhere -- something for her eyes only.

There are rumors that this is an autobiographical piece, one that discloses certain aspects of Ms. Erdrich's relationship with her husband, the writer Michael Dorris who committed suicide in 1997 in a swirl of sex-abuse charges.

If that's the case, then, it makes for an incredibly sad story, but not a better novel.

Sharon Dilworth teaches writing at Carnegie Mellon University. First Published April 18, 2010 4:00 AM


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