Spring 1915. On a sprawling country estate not far from London a young woman mourns her husband, fallen on the battlefields of what has been declared the first World War...
But the isolated and eerie stillness in which she grieves is shattered when her home is transformed into a bustling military hospital to serve the war's most irreparably injured. Disturbed by the intrusion of the suffering men and their caretakers, the young widow finds unexpected solace in the company of a wounded soldier whose face, concealed by bandages, she cannot see. Their affair takes an unexpected turn when fate presents her with an opportunity: to remake her lover with the unwitting help of a visionary surgeon and an American woman artist in the image of her lost husband.
Inspired by the little-known but extraordinary collaboration between artists and surgeons in the treatment of wounded men in the First World War, The Crimson Portrait peels back layers of suspense and intrigue to illuminate the abiding mysteries of identity and desire.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Jody Shields's debut novel, The Fig Eater, was hailed as "an atmospheric thriller" (Los Angeles Times), "stylish and compelling" (Chicgao Tribune), and "a bewitching visit to late-imperial Vienna... enjoyable and intelligent" (Times Literary Supplement). She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The Crimson PortraitA Novel
By Jody Shields
LITTLE, BROWNCopyright © 2006 Jody Shields
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA MAN IN UNIFORM sat across from her. It was a hot afternoon, and the sunlight in the drawing room turned the metal buckle at his waist into a sharp bright square and made the gold buttons on his jacket perfect as coins. A stiff collar surrounded his soft neck. His face was indistinct, unaccustomed to giving orders. She guessed he had been called into the military from a minor profession in the city.
"It will be a great adjustment to have the men occupy your house, ma'am."
"Yes, it will be strange." She attempted a smile.
"Had you thought of relocating for the duration of the war? Staying with family?"
"I have no other family. My late husband arranged for the hospital to be set up here before he enlisted. I encouraged his plan. I've never considered leaving. It's my duty to stay."
"You'll find the patients are a quiet group."
"I'm certain they will be." Her dress was thin, loose over her body, only its dark color gave it weight. She leaned forward. "Tell me, did you give the order to remove the mirrors from the house?"
"No. The head surgeon, Dr. McCleary, gave the orders. Best to have precious things out of harm's way when the patients arrive."
"Yes. There has been enough destruction."
The major's hands opened, a gesture of apology. "We'll leave what we can in place. The lighting fixtures. Some of the draperies. By the way, your chandelier isquite remarkable."
They simultaneously looked up at the ceiling. The chandelier was immense and unlit, its prisms dulled by fine dust, as if a flood of dirty water had risen through the room. When her husband was alive, two servants'-hall boys had tended the chandeliers, slowly lowering the tinkling, transparent tiers on ropes once a month to be cleaned with feather brushes.
The major's lips moved, but the young woman couldn't hear him, as if he spoke from a great distance. He had come to cast a spell over the house. A spell of urgent purpose, the soldiers' mission to spread disruption. She imagined men's shadows moving through the rooms, swift, black, gigantic, altering each space with the brutality of an eclipse. Others would follow and together they would rob the library of its stillness, strip the dining room of pleasure, disturb the cold core of the well and the lakes. It was 1915, the first spring since the war started, and her home was being transformed into a military hospital.
She sensed the major had asked a question and was waiting for an answer. Yes. She nodded. Yes. Yes.
He gently coughed to break the silence.
"The weather. Unusual for this time of year."
"It's a pity, but the rooms may become quite warm when they are fully occupied by soldiers. They weren't designed for such a purpose." She stood up, forcing him to follow. "I will have someone show you out."
"I'll find my way. Thank you, ma'am."
From the library window she watched the stout figure in a brown uniform walk straight down the drive without looking at the landscape or the house. She realized that he had no need to observe his surroundings, since everything was already in his possession. The estate had been conquered. Was he carrying a weapon? Had she seen the curved handle of a pistol? A sword?
She opened the door to the powder room. There was a small mirror on the wall, and as she adjusted its angle, her reflected hand seemed disconnected from her body. She smudged her initial on the mirror's dusty surface, ITLITL for Catherine. No last name. She was a widow. She stepped aside and her image slipped out of the mirror cleanly, as if she'd passed through water. An odorless, bodiless thing.
The mirrors were the lakes in the landscape of this house, she thought. Somehow they were linked to one another, as all glass and water were related. The immense mirror in the ballroom, a triptych positioned at the heart of the house, was a great pool, a place of transfer, and the other mirrors magically flowed into it, tributaries of silver.
When the last mirror was taken down, it would mark a turning point in the fortunes of the house, a darkening of the places formerly stung by light.
OFFICIAL PAPERS FROM the military listed the rooms that would be requisitioned to accommodate the wounded soldiers and the hospital staff. All the reflective objects in the public spaces were to be put in storage.
The military would take away the mirrors: perhaps they would also demand clocks, watches, other witnesses and timekeepers. Sundials. Calendars. Everyone was concerned with time. How slowly it passed. How long it would be until the war was over. The names of the dead wound through the Times like an immeasurable gray ribbon, filling page after page in small type. How could faith work against this?
Followed by the elderly head gardener and two silent boys, Catherine quickly walked through the Long Gallery into the Pink Drawing Room, stopping before a mirror in a lacquered chinoiserie frame. Held in the unforgiving slant of its rectangular surface, they appeared ill at ease, their faces dilated, her somber crepe dress and the servants' rough work clothing clumsily shrouding their thickened bodies.
"Take this mirror down first." Catherine struggled to compress her bitter feeling of loss, afraid that the mirror would exaggerate her expression.
"As you wish, ma'am."
The mirrors in the next room had even greater age, set in cracked gilt frames, darkened with a lichen-like black growth on their back sides, evidence of time's poisonous breath. At the corners of the frames hung tiny golden bells that remained silent, poised to delicately protest their descent from the wall.
"Remove everything in the room that has a shine or reflection. The clock, the silver bowl, and the vases on the mantel." A moment later she said, "No. Leave the bowl there. Let it tarnish. But take this away too." She pointed to the mirror set in the door of a cabinet and left them to work.
The three servants cleared the mantelpiece, emptied the bureau, secretaire, and kneehole desk. A letter opener, a picture frame, and a compass plated with bright silver were discovered inside a desk compartment lined with scratched green leather. The older boy wrapped them in a flannel cloth and laid them in a box. He picked up a paperweight, a smooth dome of colored glass irresistible as candy. The gardener wasn't accustomed to working in the house, and his voice was too loud as he told the boy to put the thing down and fetch a ladder.
The boy raced across the bare wood floor, his footsteps shaking the chandelier, jarring its prisms into quivering motion, creating sharp-angled patterns that swept across the walls and ceiling around them, transforming the room into a giant kaleidoscope.
Returning with the ladder, he set it in a timorous balance against the wall. The smaller mirrors were slowly lifted free from the walls, and the boys carried them to the attic one at a time, where they were laid in rows on the floor.
The gardener waited, casting a nervous eye over the huge central mirror hanging in the Pink Drawing Room. When the boys returned, he made them study the mirror on the wall for a full three minutes to familiarize themselves with its weight and fragility.
The mirror was more than six feet long and it wobbled and flashed in their hands, as if with its removal from the wall a spell had been broken and it might suddenly become less reliably physical and flow out over the frame. The boys whispered to each other, soft speech a charm against dropping it.
Bundled in blankets, the mirror was carried horizontally, the boys as careful as pallbearers maneuvering it through the enormous house, up the front staircase, then to a narrower flight of stairs. Under their sweating hands the blanket around the mirror released a pronounced odor of raw wool.
They reached the attic, and without setting down the unwieldy burden, one of them kicked the attic door. It swung violently open, and they stopped, dazzled by the reflection from the mirrors covering the floor. As they entered the room, a hot line of sunlight leaked through a window, magnifying the mirrors into brilliance so the floor appeared to be flooded with silver water, and they marveled like explorers encountering a strange, unexpected sea.
EARLY IN THE EIGHTEENTH century, the owner of the estate had paced the grounds and ordered a number of small ornamental pavilions, follies, and grottos built in the most picturesque locations. Seemingly made for temporary pleasure, some of the structures were as fragile as theatrical scenery, fabricated from porous rock, plaster, limestone, and ancient bricks scavenged from ruins on the property. The walls and ceilings glittered with stalactites, crystal spars, molten glass, or were roughly patterned with fossils, shells, pebbles. The sawed leg bones of oxen had been painstakingly set into one still-intact floor.
The structures had long been undefended against time, weather, the purposeful stones of vandals, and since the gardening staff had volunteered for military service, they had been untended for two seasons. Stone walls and glass had cracked; streams had clouded with silt. The Chinese temple was near collapse; the extravagant gilt on the carved, finned fish at the top of its pointed roof had faded to coarse scales. Inside, the painted figures on the walls were clothed in shabby fragments of color that had once been lavish Oriental dress. A temple dedicated to an unknown nymph had lost its faux limestone base, and a mock Gothic tower had a broken parapet.
One of the smaller follies had been captured by nets of vines, and the walls of another were half submerged by the lake. Entire buildings and statuaries had been stitched over by threads of grass and weeds, lost to memory. Recently, Catherine had been startled by a sudden gurgle of water, a captive noise below her feet as she stood on a hidden drain near the vinery.
The under-butler had pointed out the icehouse to Catherine, a sandstone vault surmounting a conical brick well nearly twenty-three feet deep. His father had been born on the estate and passed on the living knowledge of a time when this well was filled with ice layered with salt and straw to keep it frozen through the summer months. Now it was empty and echoing, and the spidery steps that clung to its sides were so steeply angled that they induced vertigo in the few who had risked a descent.
Months after her husband's death, Catherine had met a friend at the Carlton Hotel and announced she intended to raze all the ornamental buildings on the estate. "The buildings have no purpose. There is no question that since the war, I have simply lost tolerance for damaged things. I only want to keep what's worth keeping."
"Oh, leave them be. It's not as if you need the land," her friend had answered, bored with the discussion.
But Catherine had been insistent. "I want to pull down the buildings and use the materials for something else." She had longed to sweep everything away. She waited for the flat landscape of winter, the oblivion of snow, to erase her choices. Making choices wearied her.
It became Catherine's habit to listen, convinced she heard the sound of destruction, the wrenching of brick and stone as the ornamental buildings were forced from shape, exposing bare earth underneath to light for the first time in one hundred and forty-nine years.
AT A SHATTERING NOISE, crisp as china breaking, Catherine looked up from the letter she was writing. Curious, she put down her fountain pen and left the house. Walking past the lake, she composed a picture of the mirrors as they had been taken down in the house behind her, their brilliant, sharp-angled reflections sweeping across the rooms, passing over silk draperies and painted surfaces without a mark, altering nothing with the cold blankness of their light.
The entrance to the grotto was hidden by marsh grass, its door a rounded opening between rough stones. Inside, her eyes adjusted to the taper of light created by a hole in the roof, and gradually the dimness lifted, revealing an intricate pattern on the walls, thousands and thousands of shells, a surface softly lustrous as a fruit stripped of its skin and fragile as porcelain. Catherine stepped forward, her boot blindly crushing the fallen shells into powder.
I INTEND TO JOIN my regiment in two weeks' time," Catherine's husband had told her in the Pink Drawing Room. Catherine remembered that as Charles had spoken, a maid approached and the silver tray in the girl's hands reflected a zigzag of glare into her eyes. Now she understood it had been a warning that a bullet or the flash of an explosion in a field would take his life, destroy their future.
Charles had died and she remained in the huge house, surrounded by a constellation of objects collected by generations of his family. Catherine had also been born into a house filled with valuables and was conscious of their inviolability, like a walking stick that was always the correct length for the reach of the arm. When she married Charles, one set of objects had replaced another. Wood. Stone. Iron. Clay. Gold.
Charles's possessions had been left untouched in his dressing room adjoining the master bedroom, and only two open trunks betrayed his absence. Nearly a year ago, the trunks had been packed according to his list sent from the front: inflatable air cushion, luminous compass, chocolate bars, twill breeches from Sandon, tobacco, tinned paté, scarves, gloves, a heavy wool blanket, and a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse. Handkerchiefs doused with Catherine's perfume, Jicky, were tucked into the corners of the trunks.
Catherine had imagined him opening a trunk in his tent and, genie-like, the familiar scent of lemon, orris, and bergamot rising, eliminating the elastic distance between them. The news that Charles had been killed on the battlefield arrived before the trunks were shipped.
During her earliest stage of mourning, Catherine was pinched with the desire for destruction and had furiously circled the rooms, searching for evidence of tarnish, rotted wood, cracked plaster. The rich colors of the upholstery, draperies, and carpets had faded as if they had ripened backward. Charles's death had revealed the truth of the house's fragility.
This house contained many beautiful objects, but she wanted only what Charles had touched. A shagreen box that held his stationery. His fountain pen, his paperweight, the silver bibelots on his desk. A piece of sea glass discovered in a trunk. An umbrella with a mahogany handle his fingers had gripped. The sound of a cup against a saucer when he had set it down. The span his eyes had traveled to a clock. The suspense of waiting as his hand reached to caress her.
In the wardrobe, Charles's jackets retained the shape of his body, fit twelve times by his exacting cutter at Poole & Co. on Savile Row, so that the lapels unfurled over his clavicle, the shoulder pads defined a handsome curve, the pockets slanted at the angles his hands would enter.
Catherine found a camphor-wood box filled with his gloves and pulled one over her own hand, certain that the soft leather interior held an impression of his fingers, the lines on his palm, the thick horizontal welt of his wedding ring. She knew his skin intimately. Once, after a quarrel, Charles had gently placed his hand on her bare neck, his touch as familiar as stone. When they were first married, she had opened her eyes to find him studying her face. She had slipped from the bed, pressed her hand against the freezing windowpane-snow swirled wildly outside-and then laid her cold palm against his cheek. Her gesture had amused him, but she had made her mark. He was hers.
She now tried to restore this encounter, lengthen it, fasten it to words, to their conversation. What had they said to each other? What was his expression as their eyes met? Her memory wouldn't expand. It evaporated, elusive as a taste or scent, trackless as a wave. What she wanted was to be surprised by him again.
She craved the image of her husband. Each day she selected a room in the house and forced her memory to place Charles there, reclaiming him, little by little, from the past. But these glimpses could be created only indirectly. If she studied a chair in the library he appeared at the fireplace. Or if her eyes followed a pattern in the carpet, she could visualize him at the window. He couldn't escape her, but she was unable to command him to move, cross the room, walk through the door. He was always a static figure. Why should this be so? She had believed memory was constant in its appearance, as a fire was always hot.
Excerpted from The Crimson Portrait by Jody Shields Copyright © 2006 by Jody Shields. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jody Shields tells the story of a very selfish, depressed war widow and the medical staff that transforms her home into a medical ward for soldiers with facial deformities. Catherine's husband is presumed dead, and she emits all of her passion and longing for him onto Julian, who, with the help of the artist Anna and Dr. McCleary, is surgically transformed into her deceased husband. The story is beautifully written. Shields transformed the reader into fly on the wall of a WWI medical unit for the grizzliest of war injuries: facial deformities. I tasted the wine Dr. McCleary enjoyed, I felt the heat that emitted from Catherine when Julian walked into the room. The ending, though, was disappointing. The meeting of Anna and Kazanjian in the epilogue was believable, but the direct manner in which Anna described their friends' demise was unflattering. I wished for more.
I was intrigued by this book as soon as I read the synopsis: a book set in World War One involving facially disfigured veterans! That was something that I hadn't read before, at least in fiction. I had to have it.The author's style isn't the best, and she spends a great deal of time using flowery words and even more flowery imagery. The author tended to use a lot of medical terminology and situations with the air of only flaunting her knowledge. There are a lot of people "introduced" in the book, but very few become anything more than a line or two. I don't think that any of the characters were particularly well-developed.My biggest criticism of this book is the "character" of Anna Coleman, who was painted to be rather selfish. I think this is a great injustice to the real Anna Coleman Ladd, and I don't think it's right to play around with a real person and make her appear so unsympathetic in fiction.Why did I rate the book three stars, then? I loved Julian, or at least the idea of him. There were some really great lines in the book too. Mostly, though, I love that this book dares to venture into often unexplored territory when it comes to fiction. I wish that there were more books that dealt with this time frame and these circumstances - except I'd like them to be written with a better style and more character development.
The Crimson Portrait by Jody Shields was a novel about the importance of faces, reflections and appearances. If your face became disfigured, how would it change you as a person? How would others perceive you? Catherine was a lonely widow living on her husband¿s estate during World War I. Her husband, Charles, offered up the estate prior to his death so it could be used as a hospital. Catherine had no choice but to watch a medical team convert her home into a hospital for men suffering from severe facial disfigurements. Their first order of business was to remove all mirrors ¿ making the estate a place of no reflections.At the estate, the physicians performed surgeries on these men in an attempt to restore their faces. For the unrestorable, the doctors turned to thin prosthetic masks, created by artist Anna Coleman. Their first subject was a young soldier named Julian, who was having an affair with the emotionally fragile Catherine. Anna needed to create a mask in the likeness of Julian prior to his injuries, and Catherine made a dangerous decision: to provide a picture of Charles as the pre-injured Julian so that Julian¿s face would resemble her dead husband. Catherine, in effect, missed her husband so much that only his face would do on her lover¿s body. But did it work to erase her demons?The characters in this book were elegantly drawn. Catherine was depicted as severely depressed and delusional. The doctors battled between emotional attachments and treating their scarred patients. And the men battled their own demons, left with able bodies and faces that scared people.Throughout this story, I often contemplated that it would translate well into the big screen. I think the medicinal and surgical aspect of The Crimson Portrait would draw audiences right in. And the unforgettable, flawed characters would seem human and familiar, especially considering our current state of military affairs.Until the movie is made (if it¿s ever made), I would recommend The Crimson Portrait to readers of World War I fiction or to those who are interested in stories that have medical theme. For certain, The Crimson Portrait is a medical book and one should find medicine interesting to enjoy this story. All in all, Jody Shields told a compelling and thought-provoking story about the love and loss of the human face ¿ and human life.
Sheilds explores the lives and relationships of a group of people living and working in a mansion that has been turned into a hospital for World War I soldiers returning from the battlefield with severe facial injuries. Catherine, the estate's owner, grieves for the husband lost in the war and becomes obsessed with Julian, an injured soldier who resembles her dead husband. Anna, an artist, has volunteered to record the injuries and to help design prostheses. Kassavian, a dentist, has become a specialist in facial injuries. The cynical Dr. Brownlow eases the trauma of his experience with an addiction to ether. Ardis, a servant in the household, is learning everything he can about medicine--until he learns that he is about to be drafted. The book is a bit slow going and has several disturbing and/or unbelievable moments. Let me just say that with facial injuries being as common as they were during World War I, and as shocking as they may have been, I find it unlikely that British citizens would not recognize what had happened to a young man wearing a prosthesis (or not wearing one) and would chase him down screaming "Monster!" Overall, an OK book.
The book is very tedious. It is obvious the author spent much time researching medical history and not enough time developing the story line. I found myself skipping character sections that were of little interest to me. The initial characters (the ones I found most interesting) are somewhat forgotten by the end of the book and you are left wondering more about them. It seems as if the author wrote the ending when she realized her deadline with the publisher was that afternoon. Overall, disappointing.
Jody Shields writes as if she is studying a painting, giving details without showing the entire picture.When I first started reading Crimson Portrait, I put it down after one hundred pages. Recently, I decided that I needed to give it another chance and finished reading it. I was very pleasantly surprised. Ms. Shields' writing is unique. She does not delve into the characters' minds, but she delves into their surroundings, leaving it up to the reader to decide how the characters are supposed to feel. The romance was very sensuously written for which I must applaud Ms. Shields. Honestly, I would recommend this book to someone who wants a clear look into a good story, who wants romance without two hundred pages of foreplay, and who wants insight into the shadows of history.
I absolutely hated this book. I read the back of this book one day and couldn't stop thinking about how good it sounded, so just had to buy it. From page one I couldn't wait to finish it, the characters had absolutely no depth to them and made it impossible for me to like or even care about them. The men were bland and the women psychotic. Not to mention I got two thirds of the way through before anything even slightly resembling the description on the back started to happen. I am a huge booklover, reading at least one or two a week and can never bring myself to part with a book even after I have read it - this one though is going straight in the trash and I will never pick up another book by this author again.
In 1915, though grieving the death of her spouse Charles in the combat on the continent, widow Catherine completed his dream by converting their massive estate just outside London into a military hospital that specializes in facial injuries, a discipline with little known knowledge. However, Catherine keeps to herself unable to meet with the doctors, the staff, or the patients. In spite of the friendliness of the person in charge Dr. McCleary and other staffers, Catherine avoids everyone. That is until a patient wearing a mask Julian begins to force her to move past her grief. She begins to see Julian a mapmaker and decides he is perfect for her especially if Dr. McCleary can reconstruct Julian¿s visage to look like Charles¿ face. --- THE CRIMSON PORTRAIT is a fascinating historical fiction novel that brings to life post combat medicine and its link to portrait painting especially facial reconstructive surgery during its early days. The characters drive this superb tale especially of a doctor, a reclusive female patron, and a patient as each seems real bringing to life the horrors of war in 1915 England. Reactions to Julian by other people add to the feel of a terrific war drama in which the fighting is elsewhere, but the results are summed up in this country home. --- Harriet Klausner