book review: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

Shadow Tag: A Novel (P.S.)The backstory: Shadow Tag was a 2010 New York Times Notable book.

The basics: The story of the troubled marriage of Irene and Gil, Shadow Tag combines the fact and fiction of their lives. Irene discovers Gil has been reading her diary, so she moves her real diary to a safe deposit box and writes in it at the bank. She begins to tell elaborate stories in the diary Gil reads to manipulate him.

My thoughts: Shadow Tag is the first Louise Erdrich book I've read, but it won't be the last. I thoroughly enjoyed her writing from the beginning. Overall, however, I found the narrative somewhat uneven in the middle sections. The first fifty pages were glorious, and I devoured them and frequently scribbled quotes. There were hints of deeper issues: domestic violence, alcoholism, and loneliness. The theme of Native American identity flowed beautifully. Erdrich dabbles with how we tell stories and construct history, both personally and culturally:
To have meaning, history must consist of both occurrence and narrative. If she never told, if he never told, if the two of them never talked about it, there was no narrative. So the act, though it had occurred, was meaningless.
About half way through, the book plateaued for me. The writing was still lovely, but there wasn't much that was new. Things that were initially hinted at were made clearer. Set in Minneapolis in the winter, the narrative was often quite dreary. A troubled marriage is dreary, of course, but I could not sense any hints of happiness in their past, present or future. The novel became so bleak I contemplated abandoning it, but Erdrich's haunting writing continued to captivate me after I lost hope for the characters. By the ending, I was surprised how much I liked the novel as a whole despite my misgivings about parts of it.

Favorite passage: "How many times have I told you how difficult it is to resist the lure of the historical moment? The one action, the instantaneous truth that changes everything? How many times have I described my own struggles in telling stories, relating historical occurrences, searching for the sequence of events that results in a pattern we can recognize as history? There are always many moments, there is never just one. There are many points of clarity and many causes to one effect." (p. 48)

The verdict: Shadow Tag was a bleak and uneven read, but Erdrich's poetic prose, an interesting premise and a dynamic ending make this novel a worthwhile read.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 253 pages
Publication date: February 2, 2010 (it's in paperback now)
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours

Curious what others think? The full list of tour stops is here.

Have you read other Louise Erdrich novels? Which one(s) should I read next?

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  1. I've enjoyed this author in the past. This sounds like a worthwhile read; thanks Carrie.

  2. I've not read an Erdrich book yet. I've heard that her writing is lovely but I need a tad more than lovely writing to hold my attention. Especially these days when my attention span is that of a gnat.

    There is one lady in my book club that always pitches an Erdrich book and I always hope it will make it in, but it never does. This year she didn't even try!

  3. I also have not tried this author yet, but have heard a lot of good things about her writing, and about this book in particular. It does sound as though it was a bit of an uneven reading experience, but I still am interested in taking a chance on it. I will at least be going into it with my eyes open, thanks to your wonderful review.

  4. Carrie: I'm participating in this tour at the end of the month - and I can't wait because I adore Erdrich's writing. I highly recommend Love Medicine - my review is here if you're interested.

  5. I haven't read Erdrich either, but I hope to remedy that soon. Glad you liked this one -- I've been thinking of getting it from the library.

  6. The idea of manipulating your husband by writing a fake diary is fascinating to me (in a creepy sort of way) - that part of the story alone is enough to get me interested!

    I'm glad you enjoyed this one and that you'll be looking for more by this author. Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  7. I've yet to read any Erdrich and know I need to. This book fascinates me with the idea of the diary being written for her husband to manipulate him. Sounds like one I will be adding to my list.

  8. (How did I miss this review when you first posted it?? Emily, crawl out from under your rock.)

    I've read multiple Erdrich novels and am in the process of rereading a few of them. Shadow Tag is my least favorite of her novels, but, like you, her writing prevented me from completely disliking it. I'm curious to see what you think of her other work.


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