Shields is an underestimated writer whose prior novel, The Fig Eater, establishes her authorial talent with language. Adhering to her penchant for unusual subject matter, this novel addresses yet another difficult subject: the destructive nature of war and the emotional complexities of trauma.
In language that is both fascinating and repellant for its subject matter, the novel takes place in London in 1915, World War I decimating London and moving closer to the countryside. There a recent young widow, Catherine, has offered her remote estate for use 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.” Yet she invites damaged souls into her home for rebirth in the capable hands of a surgeon, 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.
In spite of his considerable reservations, McCleary accepts the widow’s generosity, driven to find a way to heal these soldier’s injuries: “Truth won’t heal these men.” Among the wounded is Julius, whose face is utterly destroyed, layers of gauze hiding the wreckage beneath. In her desperation to recapture Charles, Catherine is drawn to Julius, imagining the restoration of her husband in the soldier.
Persuading McCleary to attempt an innovative technique and restore Julian to some semblance of humanity, Catherine has confused her yearnings for a return to the past with Julius’s likeness to her husband, or at least her perception of it. Admitting this duplicity in her heart, Catherine is unable to deny herself this last attempt to recover Charles.
Beyond Catherine’s sad story, there is a notable attempt by physicians to tackle the tremendous challenge of facial reconstruction, aided by various characters in support of this challenge: a foreign doctor, Kazanjian, and his assistant, Anna Coleman, who sketches the images of the men’s damaged faces in detail of the doctor’s work, an invaluable illustrated text of facial injuries.
Anna’s priceless work documents the extraordinary collaboration of artists and surgeons during the war as evidenced in McCleary’s work. Inevitably it is the artist, firmly grounded in reality, who finds the comfort and understanding denied by a brutal war.
Shields’ prose shows a fine sensitivity for the psychological effects of physical damage, as well as injuries and treatment methodologies, the emotional and scientific colliding as the characters grapple with the impossible. Lives forever changed, young men are irreparably transformed into frightening visions of their former selves: “We see them as gargoyles, and this completes the injury the enemy has done.” All must find a way to survive the unbearable.