Sunday, April 03, 2011

MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU by Louisa Young (from the ARC, forthcoming May 2011) HarperCollins Canada, 325 pages

If you are already a fan of Pat Barker's REGENERATION trilogy and her novel LIFE CLASS about the confluence of visual art and emerging reconstructive facial surgery as a result of injuries on the World War One front, then you will be completely predisposed to be entranced by Louisa Young's MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU.

In 1907 as a young boy in working class London Riley Purefoy happens to be insinuated into the lives of the posh Waveney family when patriarch Robert Waveney suggests he be a face model for a painting by Sir Alfred: "He wants to put it in a painting, on top of a goaty-legged faun. What do you think? Could you sit still long enough for him to paint you? He'd probably give you a shilling." There, under Sir Alfred's tutelage over the course of 7 years, Riley goes from brush cleaner and occasional model to becoming a painter himself, one his patron refers to as "a miniature Roger Fry." In the studio, Riley meets Nadine Waveney, the educated and beautiful daughter and dreamily falls in love, half-knowing that theirs was an untenable one because of class.

Nadine and Riley are 18 when the war breaks out and both are determined to make a genuine contribution. Riley enlists and is an ideal soldier, ready to be told what to do and to do it. Nadine also does not shy away from what is required of her as a volunteer nurse; she applies herself with equal measure to both the drudgery and the emotional aspect of the work, admitting, "When no one was looking she kissed the dying, their cheeks, their foreheads, their mouths...They whispered, 'I love you.' 'I love you too, darling,' she whispered back. Because in the face of death, really, who cares about love?"

While serving on the Front in France, Riley sustains a ghastly injury and is invalided home to England where he comes under the care of the progressive physician, Major Dr. Harold Gillies. Gillies is a pioneer of plastic surgery and specializes in facial reconstruction. (See his seminal 1920 text, "Plastic Surgery of the Face" for actual details.) At the heart of this novel Young shows how Gillies not only rebuilt faces, but also lives. When he is strong enough to contemplate writing a missive to his mother and to Nadine, Riley lies about the severity of his wound--it is that form letter that gives the book its title.

In truth, Riley admits (in an inspired extended analogy), "he looked like a scarlet crater, rimmed with a half-formed pile of earthworks, a fallen-over pile of dirty sandbags. Grey bruising and purple swelling and black scab, hanging loose over nothing. The metal chin support, like revetting. Seams between pads of flesh running across his face like trenches, swelling like sandbags. A few loose stitches like barbed wire. I look like fucking no man's land."

Because of his deformity, Riley decides to protect Nadine from what he now perceives to be an impossible love. Yes, he is a decorated soldier, but he is a decorated soldier without a face. He enlists his nurse Rose Locke's (cousin of Riley's Commanding Officer Peter) help to perpetuate the lie; she willingly obliges. And, because Nadine believes the lie, she asks for a transfer out of London to France where, "Everything was as wrong as she felt. She was glad. She took all the dirtiest jobs. She didn't complain. She didn't join in...Night and work were her blankets...Death had a happy ending every time. Peace. She liked their poor corpses, safe on their way to a numbered grave, cosy within the system built and created for them. Not lying out there, in the dark, alone."

After many surgeries, when Riley has the opportunity to meet Mrs. Ainsworth, his fellow soldier Jack's widow, that moment is transformational. Her kindness and lack of judgement sets Riley on the path of real healing.

MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU held me in its thrall, even during moments that I felt squeamish from the brilliant surgical detail. In the end, you will realize that all of the characters bravely faced wars of their own.

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