The Crimson Portrait Review
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It’s the year 1912 in London, and World War I rages, bringing fear, despair, and quiet insanity. Elaborate estates are turned into makeshift hospitals, where wounded soldiers come to heal or die. None of them will ever be the same.

Catherine loses her husband on the battlefield and opens her home to the military. A special hospital is set up to care for soldiers with severe facial wounds. Grief-stricken, Catherine wanders about her estate and becomes convinced she sees her husband among the wounded soldiers. When they tell her she’s mistaken, she accuses them of keeping her husband from her. She sinks further into the illusion when she meets Julian, develops a relationship with him, and then schemes to have his face remade into that of her husband’s.

Dr. McCleary uses all the medical knowledge at his fingertips to repair faces ravaged by shrapnel. Weary to his soul, he still tries to convey a sense of hope to soldiers who may never be able to appear in public again without a harsh reminder of what war has done to them. He brings in Anna, a young artist, and has her sketch the soldiers’ faces throughout the process of rebuilding them. Then he asks her to make a mask, resembling the soldier’s face, in hopes it will help ease him back into society. The first soldier for the experiment is Julian.

How do you prepare a soldier’s family for the horror of his misshapen face? The anesthetist, Brownlow, suggests they allow him to shoot the family members full of morphine in order to dull the shock. A doctor, Kazanjian, who invents ways to hold a soldier’s face together so bones can heal properly suggests that they leave the problem alone, lest they make things worse.

Each of these characters deal with the stress war has slammed on their shoulders in different ways. Catherine seeks to bring back her husband from the dead. Dr. McCleary nurtures a young servant boy, going to extreme measures to keep him from being sent to the front. Anna and Kazanjian flirt with a forbidden romance while her husband works in a hospital far from her. Brownlow becomes addicted to the ether he feeds the soldiers for pain. None of their choices have the outcome they expect or hope for.

Raw and severely painful, The Crimson Portrait will haunt you from beginning to end. War points its ugly finger at you and demands you take a good long look at the destruction it can force upon the body and soul of the soldiers—and those who love them. Ms. Shields opens you to the primitive and limited conditions that surgeons had to deal with at the top of the century. They often had to consult medical techniques several centuries old, which in itself is fascinating and surprising.

Sometimes, though, the story becomes bogged down with medical terminology that might send some readers scurrying for simpler reads. At times I found myself floating above the story, bouncing from one character to the next as if I were a balloon caught on the wind—as if each character’s pain was too much for me to dwell on for long.

The Crimson Portrait is not a novel you can soon forget. It’ll linger with you for days afterward, leaving you with a sense of profound sadness.

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