The image is not the person, she thought, or even the shadow of a person. So how can a person be harmed by the depiction, even appropriation, of something as intangible as one’s image?
Shadow Tag has been on my TBR ever since I did the Diverse Books Tag. I hadn’t read anything by Louise Erdrich before, and after being told by many other bloggers, that I simply must, I eventually did end up reading her on World Indigenous People’s Day this year.
The plot revolves around the failing marriage of Irene America and her husband Gil (both of Native American heritage). Gil’s success is due to a series of paintings he has made of his wife in which she is posed in ways that are violent/humiliating and reminiscent of the mistreatment of Native Americans by the whites. The constant sense of voyeurism that this provokes has driven Irene to alcoholism and made her desperate to leave a marriage which she feels is suffocating. She wants to “shed the weight of Gil’s eyes,” as she puts it. Gil on the other hand reacts to her pulling away with possessiveness and suspicion that she is having an affair. When Irene discovers that he is reading her diary, she uses it as a tool to manipulate him into letting her go. She also simultaneously starts another diary, in which she records the truth and keeps it locked away in a bank vault. This constant, dark back and forth between husband and wife spills over on to their children : Florian, who copes using drugs; Riel who develops some sort of paranoia/anxiety and becomes a survivalist determined to protect her family; and toddler Stoney.
There is a theme of self-destructiveness that runs throughout the book: be it Irene’s drinking and manipulation, Gil’s obsessiveness, Florian’s drug use or Riel’s constant imagining of disasters. There is the sense of breaking something intentionally; a masochistic delight in the breaking.
This idea of self-destructiveness is juxtaposed with the willful and cruel destruction of others. When the book begins, Irene is studying the work of George Catlin,”19th century painter of Native Americana.” The narrative is littered with tales of how the subjects of Catlin’s paintings succumbed to illness and death soon after being painted. It is easy for the reader to draw parallels between Catlin’s paintings and Gil’s paintings. There is violence between the characters in heaps–from child abuse to marital rape. There is no tenderness, no true moment of kindness–and not for want of trying. There are moments when it seems like the couple might be friends, but this is soured quickly.
It s a harsh, cruel landscape that is painted into the reader’s eyes. So definitely a bunch of trigger warnings for those who wish to read this book.
Even the writing seems sharp and jagged, and I couldn’t help feeling that these words were physically giving me a multitude of paper cuts. The imagery throughout the book extends the idea of coldness and alienation. The pacing is quick, clipped and evocative of something steadily moving towards the edge of the cliff. One is sure the great fall is coming, one is just not sure when it will come.
And yet, when the end came, I wondered why I did not anticipate it. What is left over is bittersweet; a feeling that one has just been through a great storm and somehow survived.
I borrowed this book from my local library and chose to review it without any request for the same on the part of the publisher/author.