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Book Review: The Crimson Portrait by Jody Shields

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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.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.
  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com GL Hauptfleisch

    Well-written review, good analysis.

  • Jeffrey Morey

    I just finished listening to the book, as I often listen while commuting. Having read Shields’s other book, the Fig Eater, I can’t help but notice her interest in writing about this particular time frame. In the Fig Eater, she works out some ideas about rational v irrational ways of knowing the world through the novelistic trope of the detective story. The mystery at the heart of that novel is the brutal murder of a Viennese, Victorian young woman, Dora. In the novel there is both direct and indirect reference to the Dora who was the historical subject of Freud’s case study on hysteria. This would place the novel in the just pre-WWI timeframe and announces among other things that Shields is interested in psychoanalysis, but more deeply, identity. In some ways, this first novel can be read as a critique of the high value given to rational and deterministic explanations promulgated through Freudian theory.
    For me then, The Crimson Portrait is less about the war or the star-crossed love lives of its characters but again about the nature of identity. I can easily understand the disappointment of those who might expect more from the overt narrative along the lines of such tropes as a romantic novel or a war novel or an historical novel. The fragmentation of the novel’s narrative reflects the tension between the personal and the impersonal that war, any cataclysmic historical event, healing and even love can set in motion.
    I suggest that she is writing about identity precisely because very early on, she begins to use the idea of reflective surfaces, mirrors, water, masks that serve as metaphor for how we are seen by the world or how we see ourselves from an “objective” view. So, Shields is operating most clearly through the set-up, the characters and the multiple, incomplete nature of her narrative to be talking about the fragmenting nature of identity and meaning in our current world.
    In this respect, I find her novel to be a very rich, compelling read. Her ability to paint a picture with words or to evoke an ethos I found deeply moving. Yet, I don’t think she intends for her readers to find her characters sympathetic. She has other fish to fry. Frustrating her readers’ desires for satisfying interpersonal relationships may be one of the devices she uses to explore the nature of alienation that we all can feel as a suffering of the modern, or perhaps more accurately, postmodern world we inhabit in 2007. We can see our own suffering perhaps more clearly as if through the mirror of 1915, and its more stylized evocations of the struggles we are a party to in a world that is increasingly dominated by patriarchally driven values of rationality and objectivity. This is what I imagine to be Ms. Shields’ deeper and more far-reaching intentions in both this and her earlier work. And in this, I believe she was quite successful. Yet, I can long for more satisfying resolutions. Perhaps, she isn’t interested in providing her readers such comfort, perhaps she believes this would undermine her basic interest in painting a picture of the devasting effects modern culture has on love and the individual identity.

  • Nancy

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments! I cannot disagree with your analysis. I really wanted to feel that way about the novel too, but I didn’t, and I can only report my reaction to what I read. I did not read The Fig Eater and now I wonder if it would have framed this novel differently for me.