Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

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.


20 thoughts on “Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich”

  1. I’m sorry to hear it didn’t quite work for you, Heather. I’ve been hearing wonders about Erdrich for years and must see for myself how I like her one of these days. I’m glad to hear you at least liked the writing!

    1. I’ve heard great things about her too! This was my first attempt at her work so perhaps the rest of her books aren’t so depressing (that’s what I’m hoping at least!) And yes, the writing was great.

  2. You know, I read the book last year and still can’t stop thinking about it. I can completely understand why someone wouldn’t like this novel. The hopelessness just seems so pervasive; but the writing was incredible.

  3. I’m so bummed you didn’t like it. I really, really, really wanted to hear good things about this book. I LOVE a gook with a dysfunctional relationship and couldn’t wait to read this one. Now, I’ll wait!

  4. I had really mixed feelings about this novel. I enjoyed her writing (it was my first Erdrich), and I loved the ending. The premise was nice, but the middle was uneven for me. I agree it’s ripe for discussion, and I will certainly be reading more Erdrich, but this novel isn’t one I recommend even though the ending saved it for me.

  5. I’m sorry that this wasn’t the right book for you (hopelessness is not pleasant!) but I agree that there are people who do love books like this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and being part of the tour. I hope your next read is a better fit!

  6. I love her writing. The ending had me sobbing but somehow I think maybe this book was a reflection of her own personal life and the marriage she was in with Michael Dorris-he commited suicide. I think maybe the end where she goes into the water may have been representing that part of her life dying with Michael. Her other work has humor. This was a dark novel but does show the dynamics of abusive situations and how hard it can be to leave an emotionally, sexually, and physically abusive man.

  7. Great review!! I just finished this for the tour and I had such a hard time getting though it. I thought the relatioship was so twisted and sad…they both drove me crazy, I agree the writing was really good but the story was just to dark for me.

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