A moody novel about disfigured soldiers and hard-won love set in an English country manor during World War I.
Young, haughty Catherine, a recent war widow, acquiesces when her husband’s last wish—that their estate be used as a wartime hospital—is put in motion. The grand rooms are emptied to make way for hospital beds and metal cabinets, and strangely, all mirrors are removed, at the instruction of Dr. McCleary, the head surgeon. What Catherine later discovers is that all the soldiers suffer from some facial trauma and disfigurement—she wonders how she can ever have dinner parties in the house again with such ugliness staining the walls. Gentle Dr. McCleary has little patience for spoiled Catherine, who cautiously stays to her rooms. McCleary finds companionship with Dr. Kazanjian, an American dentist with a genius for inventing devices for facial reconstruction. He brought with him fellow American Anna Coleman, an artist he is in love with, and who will help McCleary document the reconstructive transformations they attempt. In this slow-moving work, much is given over to the fatigue and desperation of the medical staff attempting to save the men from life-long shunning, and to the suffering of the patients, who, though they can’t see themselves, can see each other. McCleary befriends Julian, the patient chosen for Anna’s first portrait. What unexpectedly arises is the fascination Catherine develops for him. Vaguely unhinged, Catherine begins to feel that her late husband Charles somehow inhabits Julian, who is pleased with the romantic attention. They begin an affair, half of Julian’s face covered by bandage. McCleary, meanwhile, unable to help Julian further, asks Anna to create a mask for the damaged side of Julian’s face. Through some clever mischief, Catherine switches Julian’s photo with that of her husband’s. Shields (The Fig Eater, 2000) succeeds in creating this gray, desperate time in an elegant language, but for all the beautifully detailed atmosphere, the plot feels secondary.
Lovely writing and evocative details salvage a thin story.