Irene and her husband, Gil, are in quite the dysfunctional relationship. There is violence, too much drinking, and lots of deception. Irene even began keeping a secret diary in a safe-deposit box at the bank after she discovered that Gil reads her original diary. As their relationship deteriorates and spirals out of control, Irene and Gil fight to keep up appearances for their three young children, who are smarter than their parents think and are not at all fooled by the charade. Shadow Tag is the story of a family coming apart at the seams, and how each individual member of this family struggles to keep things together despite the odds against this.
Shadow Tag is an incredibly melancholy novel about one of the most destructive marriages I’ve ever seen in fiction. The life Irene and Gil have built together is actually a very depressing one – they are drunk more often than sober, they constantly threaten one another, Irene actively deceives Gil by writing lies into the diary he thinks is authentic, and Gil is frequently violent with Irene and the children. There really are very few bright spots in their marriage – in fact, as I was reading the book I found myself wondering how and why they got together in the first place.
I have to admit that there isn’t a whole lot about Shadow Tag I enjoyed. Erdrich is a master with words and that is about the best thing I can say about the novel – the writing really is very good. It was the writing, actually, that propelled me through the novel as the story itself didn’t do much for me; it was just too sad and depressing.
I was hoping that with a book like this, at least I would find the characters compelling. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly the case. I really felt for Irene, as she was in an absolutely horrific situation and felt she had no way out of her marriage, but at the same time I didn’t much like her. She had her own issues, granted her drinking was simply a way to cope with her disaster of a life, but she could have made changes and it somewhat got on my nerves that she was in this vicious cycle with Gil, unable but also unwilling to escape. Gil is an absolutely wretched character, he treats his family horribly, takes everyone for granted, and then threatens Irene that he’ll get full custody (due to her drinking) if she ever gets up the courage to leave him. Not one part of his personality did I enjoy. And the three kids – there was promise there, I did like them, but they weren’t enough of the story for me to really get to know them properly.
The ending was the type of ending that, as a reader I can somewhat appreciate (I usually enjoy a good twist), but also it just made me mad. I had so much hope for this family, especially by the end of the book, and then the ending happened. It was just really disappointing.
I guess what I’m saying is that I didn’t much like the book. It has its merits, for sure – the writing is number one in that list, and the story itself keeps the reader engaged the entire way through. But the novel itself was just much too depressing and sad for my tastes. With a book as melancholy as Shadow Tag, I personally need some hope sprinkled in somewhere and I simply did not find any. That being said, for the right reader this book could work perfectly, so don’t discount it just because it wasn’t for me. For sure there’s a lot to discuss here, so if you read it, I would recommend reading it with a group.