A World War I-era photograph of Boston socialite artist Anna Coleman provided the spark for Jody Shields' new novel, The Crimson Portrait. "It was a black-and-white picture of Anna holding a paintbrush to a man's face," Shields says from her home in the Soho district of New York City. "The caption said she was an artist who painted masks for men with injured faces. I was immediately captivated."
With this real-life character as her starting point, Shields has created a lushly descriptive novel based on little-known events of World War I. Her willingness to gambol in the ambiguous fields between historical fact and imaginative invention also marked Shields' widely hailed first novel, The Fig Eater, a detective story based on Sigmund Freud's groundbreaking case study "Dora." And as was true in that first novel, Shields in The Crimson Portrait is after something more than historical and psychological veracity. She is interested in the relationship between the shiny seductive surfaces of the known world and our notions of personal identity, grief and love.
As it turns out, the real Anna Coleman went to France with her husband, a doctor - before the United States entered World War I - as part of the Harvard Medical Corps of volunteers. Also among the corps was a dentist named Anton Kazanjian, who had fled Armenia as a boy, come to the U.S., worked in a mill, and eventually enrolled in Harvard Medical school at the age of 30, the oldest student in the school. In the novel, these two artistic outsiders form an intense bond, and when Kazanjian is transferred to England to work at a hospital devoted to the reconstruction of wounded soldiers' faces, Anna follows and finds a new calling using her art in service of medical science.
"I hadn't anticipated that Anna would turn into such a central character," Shields says, sounding genuinely bemused. "And I didn't imagine that there would be a relationship between her and the dentist. But that's fate. You just can't plan everything. But what fun would it be if you could?"
Kazanjian and Coleman end up working at the country estate of Catherine, who in profound mourning over the loss of her young husband in battle has given over their grand house for use as a military hospital devoted to the new science of reconstructive facial surgery. The hospital is run by the tough, philosophical Dr. McCleary, and one of its more appealingly vulnerable inmates is a faceless young soldier named Julian, with whom Catherine eventually falls in love.
Through her dramatization of the bonds and antagonisms that exist among these central characters, Shields is also able to convey an astonishing amount of information about such things as the history of religious controversy surrounding plastic surgery, the mythological gardens of 18th-century English homes, the incredible properties of human skin, the moral and emotional impact of the human face, and, of course, the brutal horrors of war.
"The face is so small," Shields says, almost wistfully, "yet even though you can live without a face, I found an account from the period that said when someone's face was blown off on the battlefield, he was injected with enough morphine to kill him because while they would try to save men without legs or arms, they just thought a man without a face wouldn't be able to live as a human.
Shields later adds: "I write about what I find completely fascinating and interesting. It's a kind of archaeology. I love the tension of research: You can't plan what you're going to find. It's happenstance and luck. And I love spending time in libraries. When I travel I always go to libraries, just to see what they're like. . . . The challenge is not to burden the book with too much research that doesn't feel like it fits the story."
In fact, Shields' deft interweaving of her vast historical research into The Crimson Portrait does not intrude upon her narrative. But it is her enviable descriptive powers that impress throughout. This is perhaps unsurprising, since Shields, who grew up in Nebraska, was a visual artist before becoming a writer; a fashion editor at Vogue before writing All That Glitters, a history of costume jewelry; and design editor at the New York Times magazine before becoming a screenwriter, first, and then a novelist. If not by training, then by instinct, it seems, Shields bedazzles us with the colorful skin of experience, then asks us to consider what lies beneath.