"We see them as gargoyles, and this completes the injury the enemy has done."
Feb 27, 2009
Shields is a significant writer who has bravely tackled a difficult subject, the destructive nature of war and the emotional complexities of trauma. Both off-putting and riveting, the novel takes place in London in 1915, World War I decimating London and moving closer to the countryside, where a remote estate has been offered by Catherine, a recent widow, to be used as a military hospital. Still reeling from the loss of her beloved husband, Charles, Catherine has not yet accepted the reality of her situation: "I have simply lost tolerance for damaged things."
The hospital staff is headed by Dr. McCleary, who concentrates on patients with severe facial injuries, dedicating his talents and research to restoring the men's faces and thus the direction of their grossly altered futures. With great compassion, McCleary accepts the widow's generosity in spite of reservations, driven to find a way to heal these injuries: "Truth won't heal these men." Catherine is drawn to a young soldier, Julius, layers of gauze hiding the wreckage beneath. In her desperation to recapture Charles, Catherine seizes upon an opportunity, persuading McCleary to attempt an innovative technique and restore Julian to some semblance of humanity, confusing her own yearnings with his likeness to her husband, or at least her perception of it. In her heart, Catherine admits her duplicity, but is unable to deny herself.
Other figures in the novel are of equal importance, most notably a foreign doctor, Kazanjian, and his assistant, Anna Coleman, an artist. Coleman sketches the images of the men's damaged faces in detail of the doctor's work: an illustrated text of facial injuries at a time when very little has been accomplished in the area of facial reconstruction. Anna's work is priceless, documenting the extraordinary creativity of the artists and surgeons during the war. Anna and Kazanjian are instrumental in McCleary's work to restore Julius's face. Anna stands by helplessly as the widow pursues her illusions, but it is the artist, firmly grounded in reality, who finds the comfort and understanding denied by a brutal war.
As in The Fig Eater, Shields' prose is at times ethereal, showing a fine sensitivity for the psychological effects of physical damage, contrasted with the very difficult details of the injuries and treatment methodologies. Unerringly, the emotional and scientific collide as the characters grapple with the impossible, lives forever changed and psyches unable to heal. The descriptions of medical procedures, while informational, provide a disturbing view of the horrific damage done to young men who are irreparably transformed into frightening visions of their former selves: "We see them as gargoyles, and this completes the injury the enemy has done." No matter the compassion and drive to recreate what is destroyed, once shattered, whether emotional or physical, all must find a way to survive the unbearable. Luan Gaines.
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