Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

The marriage of two damaged people goes into a sharp downward spiral

Irene, a stay at home mom to three children, is also the muse to Gil, successful painter, and wealthy rageaholic. He is needy, charming and an egomaniac. He also beats the kids and wants to utterly consume Irene. Deep down, Irene knows she needs to get out, but passive aggressively cruelly manipulates Gil's jealousy to the point of madness and the destruction of her family.

I read this searing novel, completely gripped, on the plane, then sat down in Baggage Claim to finish it. Its true subject, I think, is two people destroying their children, one by control and the other by abandonment by alcohol.

The writing and complex imagery are extremely beautiful and wrapped around a downer story. The abuse scenes are alternated with playful funny scenes of affluent family life -- outdoors winter fun in Minneapolis.

The plot is escalated by Irene's use of a fake diary to feed Gil's insecurities and jealousy. He's made his reputation on paintings of her - degrading paintings perhaps. She's her own Iago and keeps upping the ante, creating a feedback loop of contempt intense love and lust all rolled together. The moral problem is that kids are brought into the mix. Everyone pretends to be the perfect family when they are all walking on eggshells. 

Shadow tag refers to a game the family plays - stepping on someone's shadow. Since there's a Native American frame around the novel, shadow tag also refers to what Gil has done to Irene - he stole her shadow, her soul, to make his paintings, his reputation, his identity. The couple truly is codependent.

A revelation at the end was gimmicky, however, and detracted from the power of the book.  But all in all, a frightening moving story.


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