Monday, September 1, 2008

The Crimson Portrait - Jody Shields

Spring 1915. On a sprawling country estate not far from London a young woman
mourns her husband, fallen on a distant battlefield…

The eerie stillness in which she grieves is shattered as her home is transformed into a bustling military hospital. Unsettled by the intrusion of the suffering soldiers, the increasingly fragile widow finds unexpected solace in the company of a wounded officer whose mutilated face, concealed by bandages, she cannot see. But then their affair takes an unexpected turn. Fate presents her with an opportunity: to remake her lover – with the unwitting help of a visionary surgeon and a woman artist – in the image of her lost husband...

I was sent this book for review a while back but it was only last week that I had the opportunity to read it. I must say I enjoyed a lot, much more than I thought I would. It's not a book to read in one sitting but something to savour slowly, to appreciate Shields fine writing and interesting medical descriptions.

There are several themes going through the story. The damage inflicted by war ( the book is set during WWI), both physically and emotionally. The importance of the face as a reference of someone's identity and how victims of war wounds to the face are avoided while victims of other wounds are hailed as heroes. How similar situations can reflect differently on two different women - Anna becomes determined and decided to do what she can to help, Catherine wants to believe the sad truth is an illusion going as far as to try and make her wishes a reality.

The story opens with Catherine becoming a widow and her house being transformed in an hospital for patients with severe head injuries. Dr. McCleary and his staff, including a dentist turned surgeon called Kazanjian, try to develop new techniques to heal the men and give them hope of regaining at least a semblance of humanity so they can go back to their families and their lives. Helping on a different level is Anna Coleman, she draws the patients intending to make them masks that will cover their wounds and allow them to go about unnoticed.

One of the patients that Anna draws is Julian, a young man with a terrible head wound who is still trying to come to terms with what he has lost. He captures Catherine's attention when she first confuses him with her dead husband Charles. Confusing her feelings for Julian and for Charles, Catherine starts a relationship with him and starts aiding Anna in her studio. Eventually, knowing the masks will be made with a likeness to old photos of the soldiers she can't resist trying to merge her feelings and changes Julian photo with one of Charles so that his mask (and him in end) will look like Charles.

I found it fascinating to read about all these characters and their feelings. How damaged people are in times of war even when they stay behind. We have glimpses of their past lives but mostly it remains a mystery and it's what they are living currently that really is important and makes the story. Staff and patients are closed in a small community with almost no interference from the outside and their interactions bring to life the horrors of war and the advance of medical techniques which, no matter how sophisticated, will be unable to restore the soldiers to what they were before.

There's a note at the end mentioning that Anna Coleman and Kazanjian were real people and I've been reading more about them online and thinking they did an amazing work.


Posted also at Historical Tapestry

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