One of the great joys of reading for me is having the opportunity to love or loathe people (okay, characters) unabashedly. I’m one of those people for whom the cliche “She wears her heart on her sleeve” is an understatement, so when I get very passionate with affection or dislike for a character, I feel a little bit of freedom and great pleasure. There is a caveat to this opportunity, however – I always like to have a clear sense of who I should have sympathy for and who I should not. At least that’s what I prefer emotionally; I like to align myself with someone.
Yet, in Louise Erdrich‘s lastest novel Shadow Tag, I am denied this pleasure because rather masterfully Erdrich manipulates my affections as I listen to the voices of a husband and wife in crisis. No one is doing the good thing; no one is above reproach; everyone is failing fairly miserably; everyone is falling apart. Except the children. The children seem to be the wise ones here, and that’s refreshing and, somehow, deeply true.
The novel tells the story of Irene America and her husband Gil. Gil has begun reading Irene’s diary, and after a slip at the dinner table one night, Irene knows what he’s doing. So she begins a new diary of which he is unaware, and she starts filling her other diary with hurtful insinuations and confessions meant to deliberately wound her husband. Meanwhile, Gil, a famous painter who only paints his wife, struggles with the vast, frantic love of a woman who he believes has betrayed him. He holds forth with anger and violence against his family, and yet, there is something tragic and sympathetic about him, something quiet and real. The kids – Florian, Real, and Stony – suffer from their parents failures, as all children do, yet they come through with strength and insight and compassion. They are the true heroes of this tale.
I find myself very frustrated in this book, but it’s not because Erdrich is not writing well here. On the contrary, it is her success as a writer that makes me frustrated, just as I would be if, on rare occasion, I could actually see both sides of a broken relationship and know that neither person is wholly right or wholly wrong. There may be a reason we don’t see life this way very much – it’s painful and hard and probably breaking. But in a novel, it’s fresh and lovely, in the way only fiction can be.
Erdrich has written another “Native American” novel (all of the characters have Indian blood), but to limit it as such would be a horrible mistake. This is a novel for anyone who has been wounded and has inflicted wounds. It is, therefore, a novel for all of us.