Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

The Crimson Portrait

Jody Shields

Doubleday 2007

I repair mens faces, and it is only temporary. Time follows behind me, unravelling my work. Nothing remains. Dr McCleary isnt some smarmy Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon, hes a man with the difficult job of reconstructing the faces of soldiers. Its World War One, and men are being sent back from the trenches with their jaws blown off, or parts of their faces shattered. The English army has set up a hospital on the estate of the recently widowed Catherine. Here, McCleary and his crew struggle to repair the hideous damage wreaked by fire and shrapnel. Didnt the patients resemble the Minotaur, with their monstrous faces masked by bandages and the bodies of normal men? The public regard soldiers with lost limbs as heroes, yet they recoil in horror from facial wounds.

Catherine grieves obsessively for her dead husband, and begins to project her longing for him onto one of the injured soldiers. She secretly manipulates the staff into recreating the mans face in the image of her husband.

Somehow these dramatic elements fail to create a gripping story. Catherine is the weakest part, a vapid, gormless creature, moping around the estate, having vague, soft-focus memories of dead hubby. I found it difficult to care about her demented little deception, or the unconvincing love affair with the soldier. Her foil is a prickly artist called Anna, employed by the army to record the soldiers faces as they change. The most interesting thing about her is the description of her materials. The characters generally seem half asleep, as if theyve been raiding the morphine stash, and their speech consists of unlikely philosophical pronouncements.

McCleary has slightly more depth than the others, and through him I learned a lot about facial surgery. Though none of the characters engaged my emotions, I did feel intense compassion for the wounded soldiers, and anger at the fact that it is still happening. Is there really anything on earth that is worth blowing open the face of an 18-year-old boy? McCleary wished for a perfection of skin for his patients. He imagined squares of skin the size of rose petals that would miraculously float down over the faces of the wounded men and cover their wounds - thick, silent and painless as snowfall.

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