The Crimson Portrait, by Jody Shields, is a beautifully written novel about an unusual and difficult subject: World War I soldiers with disfiguring facial wounds. Inspired by historical events, it demonstrates the toll of war in one of its cruelest manifestations. Love plays an important role in the story, but it is love removed, denied, and gone astray. Unfortunately, like the love it portrays, the book ultimately disappoints.
Catherine is a wealthy widow whose husband died in the war. It was his wish that their estate be turned into a hospital, and as the novel opens, preparations are being made, including all the mirrors being removed on the order of Dr. McCleary. McCleary has come out of retirement to head the surgical team that works on soldiers with facial wounds, and he is adamant that the men not be able to see their own reflections.
At the front, we meet Anna, an artist, who has come from the United States with her physician husband. They are sent to different hospital camps, and Anna meets Dr. Kazanjian, a dentist skilled at reconstructive surgery. Anna and Kazanjian are transferred from the front and sent to the hospital at Catherine's estate, where Anna takes up the difficult task of documenting the doctors' work on the men. She is also tasked with creating masks for men whose faces cannot be reconstructed surgically.
We follow these characters in the hospital, seeing the action alternately from the point of view of Catherine, who becomes involved with a patient; Anna, who believes she must not acknowledge any of her feelings; and Dr. McCleary, who does his best to dispense hope, which he believes is as powerful as surgery.
Love is an issue for each of these individuals, mostly love unfulfilled. Julian, the patient who gets involved with Catherine, despairs that no one will love him because of his face. (This in spite of the fact that Catherine already loves him.) Catherine confuses her love for her dead husband with how she feels about Julian. Anna turns away from her love for Dr. Kazanjian, and Dr. McCleary, who did not marry the love of his life, is tortured by regret over it now. Obviously love is not a sure thing; nor does it conquer all. When McCleary attempts to save a young man at the estate from being drafted, the course he takes out of fondness and a desire to protect has unintended consequences.
I was intrigued by the setting of the book, but I did not feel fulfilled by its progress. It was like a watching an artful table being set and a beautiful meal put upon it, only to find that the food has little taste. I was frustrated by the way the relationships developed, or failed to. Anna becomes short-tempered; Catherine is obsessed with her dead husband. Dr. McCleary, who struggles against despair, is the most sympathetic character.
I also found the ending a bit confusing. There is an epilogue that ties up some of the loose ends, but the dots between it and the last chapter are barely connected. In addition, I had trouble conjuring up the horrific nature of the soldiers' injuries in my mind's eye. I could see this being very moving and affecting on film, but the narrative lacked that kind of clarity of description for me.
Shields does a wonderful job of evoking a time and place and in choosing an interesting setting. In elegant prose, she tells an important story by bringing to light the types of injuries that were encountered during World War I and how they were treated, an ephemeral scene that was made outdated almost immediately by advances in medicine.