three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
46-May-June-2010
user_rating: 
0

A-Shadow TagLouise Erdrich is the author of thirteen novels, five children's books, three volumes of poetry, three works of nonfiction, and one collection of short stories. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her debut novel, Love Medicine (1984), and she has been short-listed for the National Book Award (The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, 2001) and for the Pulitzer Prize (A Plague of Doves, 2008).

The Story: Affluent Minneapolis couple Gil and Irene's outwardly successful marriage is crumbling under the pressure of Irene's escalating alcoholism and Gil's volatile temper. Gil, a talented artist, has achieved success by painting increasingly invasive and humiliating portraits of his wife. Meanwhile, Irene, frantic to forge an identity separate from her husband and his career, returns to school to finish the doctoral dissertation she abandoned 12 years earlier. Irene soon discovers that Gil reads her diary, and she begins to invent disturbing tales of adulterous affairs calculated to infuriate and provoke him. While their unhappy parents are locked in a perilous dance of aggression and retaliation, 14-year-old Florian, 11-year-old Riel, and 6-year-old Stoney scramble to save themselves.
Harper. 255 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780061536091

San Francisco Chronicle 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Shadow Tag accomplishes the literary miracle of making a reader ravenous to finish it, while stinging with regret at how soon it must end. ... Readers will shiver to recognize certain elements of relationship (‘They argued sometimes for comfort') conveyed in some of the most shapely, beautiful sentences imaginable." Joan Frank

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"For decades, publicists and blurb writers have tried to hawk books by claiming they are ‘literary page-turners.' Shadow Tag is the real thing--a fast-paced novel of exceptional artistic, intellectual, and psychological merit." Perrin Ireland

Kansas City Star 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite the slash-and-burn subject matter, this economical novel manages to deliver sly disquisitions on ‘kitsch' and insightful observations on artists and muses who become objectified. ... In a novel full of foreshadowing, which treats shadows and the appropriation of souls as one of its central themes, Shadow Tag is a singular and blisteringly insightful addition to Erdrich's impressive canon." Jeffrey Ann Goudie

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[Erdrich] keeps Shadow Tag tightly focused, abandoning entirely the discursive style of her previous books. What would have been oppressively grim in a longer work remains arresting in this taut tale, which comes to us from three narrators as a series of finely cut moments, each just a page or two long." Ron Charles

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"There is a certain denseness, a cultural and psychological richness, in most of Louise Erdrich's work that's largely missing from Shadow Tag. ... This is no Love Medicine or The Plague of Doves. And yet, even if it is a different sort of novel for this author, it is wonderfully, painfully readable and revealing in its own way, owing more to raw emotion than to deliberation." Ellen Akins

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"To be sure, in places, Shadow Tag seems more like notes for a novel than fully realized fiction. ... Elsewhere, though, Erdrich's unbridled urgency yields startlingly original phrasing (‘the christbirthing pinecone air') as well as flashes of blinding lucidity." Leah Hager Cohen

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"I left the novel with mixed feelings. Despite its psychological acuity, and the tenderness the author has for the kids, I mostly felt trapped in a stifling space with a rather unlikable couple." Brigitte Frase

Critical Summary

Shadow Tag, a convincing and captivating portrait of a deteriorating marriage, marks a departure from the byzantine, multigenerational sagas familiar to Erdrich's readers, but most reviewers praised her poetic language, persuasive characters, and fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat plot. A couple of critics raised concerns that the novel lacked the depth and complexity of earlier works because of its narrowed focus, but the Boston Globe praised Shadow Tag's gut-wrenching intensity, and the Washington Post hailed it a "tense little masterpiece of marital strife" that also examines romantic obsession, exploitation, and the problematic relationship between artist and muse. Erdrich's devoted fans may miss the characters and culture of the Ojibwa reservation, but most readers will enjoy this dark and disturbing detour into upper-class Minneapolis.

Recently Reviewed

A Plague of Doves (2008): After a local white family is found murdered outside Pluto, North Dakota, in 1911, an angry mob lynches four innocent Ojibwa men from the nearby reservation. The hangings and their aftermath haunt the little town of Pluto, even as, generations later, the lives of the descendants of both the victims and the vigilantes have intertwined in surprising and significant ways. ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2008)