The park light cast blurred shadows on the snow. Irene said that this would be the perfect place to play shadow tag, a game she had played as a child, under summer street lamps. So they began playing tag by touching shadows. Irene and Gil ran and whirled, stepping in and out of each other’s darkness. The children dipped and slid, leapt away so that their shadows unfurled beneath them. The dogs galloped in circles around the family, to keep them from straying. Gil found a place just under the light where he could hide his shadow tightly under his feet. Irene and the children arranged themselves around him, laughing. As they were closing in to capture Gil, he leapt out. His shadow sprang across the field.
Irene’s husband Gil is a painter who paints her obsessively – in fact his whole reputation is built on his paintings of her. Once she accepted this – now she begins to see the cruelty with which he has taken possession of her:
The violent physicality of her reaction confused her….
The image is not the person, she thought, or even the shadow of the person. So how can a person be harmed by the depiction, even appropriation of something as intangible as one’s image?
But she knows the answer to that question. As an American Indian and a student of George Catlin, a painter of American Indians, she knows the feeling that painting a person can be a form of theft, to the point of stealing the soul.
Gil had placed his foot on Irene’s shadow when he painted her. And although she tried to pull away, it was impossible to tug that skein of darkness from under his heel.
And so Irene begins to escape Gil’s possessiveness by casting other shadows round herself. Discovering that he is reading her diary, she begins to create in it a false narrative that feeds his jealous paranoia, while she records her true feelings in another diary she keeps in a safe-deposit box. But even in that diary she isn’t telling the truth to herself. She says she can’t leave Gil because of their children, but for a long time she refuses to realise that she is as pathologically tied to him as he is to her. Shadows upon shadows.
It’s an engrossing story, full of rich characters: the tormented Gil, at once hateful and pitiable, Riel the quiet daughter who, observing her parent’s fights, is trying to learn Indian survival techniques and stockpiling provisions to save her family when the inevitable happens, 6-year old Stoney who doesn’t want to be a human being any more:
It’s too hard to be a human. I wish I was born a crow, or a racoon. I could be a horse.
And of course the excellent dogs who defuse many a family crisis:
Irene thought they had gravitas. Weighty demeanour. She thought of them as diplomats. She had noticed that when Gil was about to lose his temper one of the dogs always appeared and did something to divert his attention.
There’s a focussed tension in the narrative that grows tighter and tighter, but when the crisis comes it isn’t an explosion. It feels like an ascension to another plane where the air is sharper and everything stands out in cool detail. Shocking as the ending is, it feels exactly as it should be, Gil and Irene being who they are.
Erdrich is a poet as well as a novelist, and you can see it in the resonance of her symbols and the shaping of the narrative. Highly recommended.