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The Crimson Portrait


The Crimson Portrait

At some point in our lives, all of us have found fault with our own faces. Maybe it was the passing anxiety of youthful acne, freckles, oddly paired dimples, or stick-out ears. Perhaps it's the lifelong irritation of inherited imperfections, like a crooked nose, puffy eyelids, receding chin, sagging jowls, or turkey neck. 

Yet, as dissatisfying as we sometimes find ourselves when looking in the mirror, I can wager a week's worth of coffee breaks that every last one of us would passionately miss our flawed "ordinary" faces if suddenly they weren't there anymore.

In THE CRIMSON PORTRAIT, author Jody Shields delves into medical history from the Great War (1914-1918) to build her remarkable, often arrestingly beautiful romantic novel around the traumatic post-combat lives of British soldiers whose faces were horribly disfigured by explosion wounds. 

Amid the emotional, spiritual and physical pain endured by these sequestered patients (even their families were barred from seeing them), we meet an exceptional community of medical and physical caregivers. Thrown together in unexpected assignments at a commandeered English country house-turned-hospital, they muddle through their own fears, uncertainties, relationships and obsessions, along with the estate's owner --- the recent widow of yet another war casualty --- who is still suffering the initial throes of grief and denial.

Shields unravels their intersecting stories with a powerful delicacy one might never expect to find within such a potentially grotesque theme. She does it so well, in fact, that it is difficult to tell who the primary players really are.

There is the seemingly tireless surgeon who devotes his entire short-lived retirement to repairing soldiers' faces; the dentist-turned-bone sculptor, whose eastern European past remains a mystery; the deposed "chatelaine" tortured by fleeting glimpses of her dead young husband; the pragmatic artist whose skill at drawing surgical procedures competes with her anguished affection for two lovers; the teenaged draft dodger who yearns to be a surgeon; and finally, the "model" patient whose poetic good looks were blasted away forever in a trench across the English Channel. Perhaps the realization that they are all superbly crafted composite characters is what adds so much to the strength of this story, which transcends mere fiction by a quantum leap.

While war has often served to accelerate the development of surgical "miracles" that have become medical standbys in peacetime, no other injuries have ever posed challenges as technically difficult or as heart-rending as those affecting the human face.

We may be brought up on the truism that appearance is only superficial and that the "real person" within is most important, but as recovering soldiers sketched in THE CRIMSON PORTRAIT learn, nothing will ostracize a human being faster than the sight of his or her destroyed face. Except for a brief glimpse or two of the appalled "normal" residents in a nearby rural village, however, Shields leaves that part of her story prophetically untold.

Read this book and you may well forget you are reading fiction; it is brilliant, poignant, eloquent and humbling, in all the best ways fine literature can be.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on January 7, 2011

The Crimson Portrait
by Jody Shields

  • Publication Date: May 13, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316067180
  • ISBN-13: 9780316067188