Irene America, the protagonist of Louise Erdrich’s 13th novel, is a woman whose identity has never been entirely her own. For while she is both a mother and a serious academic, she is best known as the subject of her husband Gil’s esteemed art—large, assertive and overtly sexual portraits that exemplify his love, but also his constant need to subjugate and own her.
This power dynamic has always troubled Irene, but at the novel’s start, she discovers that Gil has reached a new level in his quest for possession; he is reading her diary in an attempt to both quell and verify fears that the marriage is deteriorating. Unable to confront Gil directly, but unwilling to let him know everything, Irene reacts by creating another hidden diary in which she records the actual truth. She continues to write in the original diary, however, leaving it where she knows her husband will find it and crafting her words in order to manipulate him.
In many ways, this charade is much like the game referred to in the novel’s title, shadow tag, in which players try to step on each other’s shadows without casting any of their own. American Indians believe shadows hold a person’s soul, Irene (who is herself of Native blood) explains, and thus the game becomes a literal fight for self-preservation. Irene, Gil and their three children struggle to defend themselves and their family, but increasingly realize that such defense requires a certain splitting of the self. “[It] had released a double into the world,” Irene thinks of one of Gil’s paintings, but she could easily be talking about her diaries, about her biracial ethnicity or about the disconnect between who she is and who she pretends to be.
Erdrich is a muscular and fearless writer, and she explores her characters with both compassion and criticism and through lyrical and visceral prose. At one point, Irene notes that it is the process of narration that authenticates history—a sentiment Erdrich no doubt wants readers to consider. After all, it is her superb telling of this story that makes it real, her stellar writing that brings powerful truth to invented worlds.
Jillian Quint is an associate editor at the Random House Publishing Group.