Crimson Portrait

Written by Jody Shields
Review by Sarah Cuthbertson

In 1915, Catherine, an Englishwoman grieving for her husband who has died on a WWI battlefield, turns over their country mansion to the army as a hospital specialising in facial injuries. She finds consolation in the company of Julian, a young soldier whose face is swathed in bandages, save for one eye. When the hospital’s gifted surgeon and his dentist colleague realise they cannot reconstruct Julian’s face, an alternative is offered: an artist will make a lightweight mask in silver and copper and paint it with a likeness of Julian’s face taken from a photograph. But Julian is no longer interested in his former face, and Catherine sees in his reluctance an opportunity to secretly substitute a photograph of her husband and thus remake Julian in his likeness. Will this be any consolation to either of them?

The cover of my proof copy says that the novel was ‘inspired by a little-known but extraordinary collaboration between artists and surgeons during the First World War.’ The author seems to have taken this information and run with it, trailing reams of research on artistic and medical matters – why give such voluminous detail about facial reconstruction in the early 20th century when it isn’t going to be used? The result is that the lush and detailed description distances the reader from the characters, slows down the story to yawning pace, and blurs whatever interesting things Shields has to say about identity and desire.