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'The Crimson Portrait' brings scars of war to the surface

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Imagine physically damaged men returning from war in a time when doctors knew little about how to repair their bodies and society shunned them, however noble the cause of their wounds.

These tragic circumstances are at the heart of Jody Shields' dark and atmospheric novel, The Crimson Portrait.

Her second novel takes place in 1915 on a country estate outside London. Catherine, a young war widow, has resigned herself to fulfilling her late husband's request that the estate be used as a hospital for soldiers wounded on World War I battlefields. Soldiers are suffering from facial wounds so horrific that all mirrors are put in storage.

Catherine obsesses over Charles, her dead husband. She tells herself that he will, somehow, return to her. She's trapped in an emotional nightmare.

As Catherine's mental state deteriorates, she becomes convinced that Charles' face is hidden beneath the bandages of many of the recuperating men.

She eventually falls in love with one of them, although she has never been allowed to see his disfigured face.

Some of the men are so grotesquely disfigured that doctors decide to design masks for them on which their facial features are painted.

The plotting Catherine tricks the maskmakers into painting her lover's mask to resemble the face of her dead husband. The consequences of her action will mesmerize readers.

Shields deftly uses facial deformities as a literary device to explore questions of identify, memory, self-esteem and social acceptance.

This very literary novel also ponders the sometimes insurmountable levels of grief and suffering brought on by war.

There's nothing uplifting in this novel, but that shouldn't keep readers away. It's beautifully presented and, as in Shields' first novel, The Fig Eater, shimmers with her wonderfully descriptive and poetic style.

The Crimson Portrait

By Jody Shields

Little, Brown, 296 pp., $23.99

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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