Friday, January 20, 2012
A feel-good book review
But for wannabe writers like me, scathing book reviews are far from a waste of time. They are actually beneficial. Because they remind us that if so much crap is published out there, deftly concealed behind fancy covers and catchy titles, then ours certainly deserves to be published too.
Prepare to feel good.
The Crimson Portrait, a historical novel by Jody Shields (Doubleday, 2007), is 361 pages long. Actually, oops, it’s 382 pages but I haven’t finished it yet. I don’t need to read the ending anyway: I already know all the characters are going to end up either abandoned by a lover or dead from an overdose of ether. I might have too, if I hadn’t stopped on page 361.
I won’t bore you with too many plot details and character names. Suffice it to say that a manor in the English countryside has been turned into a hospital for World War I soldiers with facial disfigurations, one of whom the freshly widowed lady of the house falls for. Other important figures are the sensitive lead surgeon attempting to rebuild the mutilated faces, a foreign dentist with self-taught techniques in facial reconstruction, and a female artist with the task of making lifelike masks to hide the soldiers’ monstrous faces from society.
You might think of this plot, “Sounds interesting,” or even, “I wish I’d thought of that!” But it’s a bit like the Belly Belt for pregnant women’s expanding waistlines: after spending $19.99, plus shipping and handling, you realise that behind the fancy and original concept is nothing but a tiny strip of elastic and that you would have been better off just wearing a longer shirt.
In fact, despite a few satisfying and literary-sounding lines to describe feelings – such as “fear snapped like a cloth in wind” – the reader soon realizes the plot is merely a pretext for an indulgence in visual descriptions of virtually everything under the sun (and even under the moonlight). Flower petals in the grass. Car lights in the night. Spatters of paint on a worktable. Chipped fountains. Mirror reflections. Reflections in vases. In spectacles. Dinner plates. Tablecloths. Curtains. Dresses. Floorboards. I particularly enjoyed the page and a half description of a mahogany headboard. Not to mention all the nuances of colors: crimson, maroon, khaki grey, silvery pink, viridian green, sulphurous yellow. As riveting as a Dulux catalogue.
On the other hand, the characters are painted in only a few rough brushstrokes. It took me to page 353 to learn that the doctor himself, a plastic surgeon, has a deep scar across his face. (Or was I just skimming too much?) And by page 361, I’m still not sure if the lady of the house – probably the protagonist – is a spoiled girl fallen prey to her hormones or a condescending and deceitful landowner capable of calling someone that she’s only just met a “stupid woman”. Whatever the case, I don’t like her. The same goes for the artist, who is either a meek and observant artiste secretly in love with the foreign dentist, or a coarse and bitterly married woman who relishes in ordering around the lady of the house so she won’t think of herself as “the Queen”.
But these discrepancies are nothing compared to the plot inconsistencies that plague the novel.
For example, the artist follows the dentist to a military hospital halfway across the country solely in order to be close to him. Then she pushes him away. Even though it’s over with her husband anyway.
In order to save his young disciple from the draft and certain death in the trenches, the doctor plots with the anaesthetist to maim the boy by shooting him in the hand. Even though the doctor had been training him to become a surgeon. Oops, wrong limb.
In these times of war, sugar is hard to come by, but apparently not art supplies like turpentine, colored chalk, clay, paper pulp, copper, silver and gold leaf. The last of which is best used for the time-consuming process of developing a paper-thin and exquisitely painted metal mask as a temporary fix for each maimed soldier. Because plain bandages are so expensive and hard to come by.
The lady of the house schemes for her lover’s mask to be crafted in her dead husband’s likeness, based on a photograph. Even though only half her lover’s face is disfigured and so an authentic mask could have easily been made by simply replicating the undamaged half of his face.
No one realises that the finished mask doesn’t resemble the soldier at all. Not the artist who had previously studied his face for days while sketching him. And not the soldier himself, who puts on the mask without even at looking at it. Thank goodness or the entire plotline would have instantly unravelled.
The implausibility of The Crimson Portrait reminds me of why I don’t read much fiction. Perhaps I should try the author’s two non-fiction books instead. I’m just not sure if I should start with the one about costume jewellery or the one about hats.
Boy, do I feel better now. You’re probably wondering if I feel at all bad about trashing someone’s work of art. Actually, I do a bit. But I’m also somewhat humbled by this long and bitter dissection. Because I know my own manuscript deserves it next.