Irene America is a graduate student, wife, mother, and--perhaps most defining--the primary model for her artist husband, Gil. The marriage has always had an undercurrent of distrust and emotional intensity, but when Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary, she seizes the opportunity to gain the upper hand.
The red diary becomes Irene's source of power; in it she writes exactly what she knows will pick away at Gil's weaknesses and suspicions. At the same time, she needs to track her truth, and keeps her real story in the blue diary, locked up in a safe deposit box. When the game of manipulation crosses all boundaries, both Gil and Irene fall into darkness.
All the while a third voice fills in the spaces: judging, chronologizing, questioning.
Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag grabs you by the collar and pulls you in close. You are trapped for the duration, but you don't struggle to get away.
In the complicated tapestry of the Americas' family and marriage it is difficult to discern who is victim and who is perpetrator. Irene and Gil, each equipped to devastate the other, seem to act first, think later. They may be evenly matched, but what roles do their children play in this home-front drama?
Here, Irene gives us a hint in her blue notebook:
Why should I tell you where I am going? It is what a person does in a civilized relationship. Ours is not--you have broken the rules. Of course, as soon as I say that, I remember. I have broken other rules and you have broken other rules. We have tried to work out our differences over those violations, or over most of them. The worst things we've done have involved the children. So we have tried to repair our behavior and correct mistakes for them. But this is different. (p. 47)Shadow Tag catches you off guard but does not toy with your emotions. Irene and Gil are masters of manipulation but they work only on each other, leaving the reader as the guardian of hope. Despite the seemingly inevitable downward spiral of the Americas' marriage, we stick with the family, unsure of the ultimate outcome.
Irene and Gil will live in your head for weeks, making you think about love, jealousy, truth, privacy, relationships, parenting, meanness, depression, alcoholism, independence, and personal boundaries. Book clubs will likely devote quite a bit of time discussing Irene and Gil's children and their reactions to their parents' behavior. Other topics can be found in the Reading Guide.
I talk more about Shadow Tag in a teaser post and an Imprint Friday post that featured this novel.
Harper Perennial is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For information about the imprint, please read Erica Barmash's welcome note posted here on June 18, 2010. I encourage you to add your reviews of Harper Perennial books to the review link-up page; it's a great way to discover Good Books for Cool People. And don't miss the The Olive Reader, the Harper Perennial blog.