Pros: Interesting characters, thought-provoking issues, meaningful viewpoint
Cons: Slightly unsatisfying ending, some profanity
I've worked on many faces in my time and I can tell you that the characteristics of a person's face have nothing to do with their intelligence or their loveability.
Martin's got an okay life. His best friends Matt and Mark are quiet and goofy, respectively. His girlfriend Natalie is good-looking and a good kisser. And though there's nothing really eventful to exclaim out, there's not much to complain about, either.
Set in London, Face follows Martin through a progression of traumatic events. It starts innocently enough, when Natalie meets some random girls who invite the group to a dance club. There, as with the dance clubs they've previously abandoned, Martin is approached by a drug dealer. He shoves the guy aside, all in the name of making good choices, then abandons caution and climbs into the car with a gang member. By the time Martin realizes his mistake, it's too late--the car has rolled and started on fire.
He awakens in the hospital, severely charred. The face is the worst, but Martin forces himself to look. As painful as the injury is, the worse pain comes when his buddies start to act awkward when they visit. Along with that, police are investigating the accident in detail after finding drugs in the smashed car.
He finds support in Anthony, another hospitalized disfigurement victim, and Alan, the hospital counselor. But even with skin grafts and time to heal, Martin's life has suffered damage it can't recover from. Everyone either pities or fears him. He soon learns how to look into people, past their skin, and measure their sincerity while estimating their true worth as friends. Confused and abandoned, Martin pulls himself together, gets involved with a gymnastics team, and learns to survive with a healthy, realistic attitude.
Face is a sad, scattered tale about one young man's struggle to find identity. It's a little random but has its intentions in the right place.
I say scattered because that's how my mind felt as I read the first section of the book. It's got a lot of British street dialect, so I had a harder time snuggling into the story. Also, there's a brief but out-of-place section explaining the gang situation that I found more confusing than necessary, especially because the police-related issues in the book focused on drugs, not gangs. The events are piecey, with Natalie befriending unknown girls, then dragging the boys to a dance club, after which Martin accepts a ride from a gang member for no good reason.
Because Face also gives the same amount of description to Matt, Mark, and Martin, it's strange for the plot to suddenly zero in on Martin after the accident. Perhaps they were given equal billing to show their equal places in the "Gang of Three," but this ends up making them all feel distant until later in the story. Natalie is shown as the gorgeous, strong-willed (pushy, even) girlfriend. Still, we don't know her that well, except that she's bold and gets her way a lot.
The real action begins in chapter 6, when Martin's inner thoughts are finally revealed. There, we learn about struggle from his point of view. First, he encounters physical limitations: restricted to a hospital bed, pain over his whole body, skin fried. Then there are the frustrations with the police: he comes to understand that one bad choice can lead to mass chaos, even if he wasn't directly involved. Finally, there's emotional strain: everything Martin took for granted is dropping away. It's a realistic portrayal of pain on many levels, and author Benjamin Zephaniah does a good job showing the progression of Martin's healing.
There is some questionable material. Yes, the book discusses drug use, but it's portrayed unfavorably and the results of unwise choices are shown vividly. There's also some profanity (American and British, so you might not even notice some of it), and minor sexual innuendo. Not massively concerning, but enough that I might save the book for readers in at least 9th or 10th grade.
Interestingly enough, Zephaniah uses sex as a jumping off point for Martin's contemplation of love versus lust. He delves into conversation with his parents, who confirm that love and lust can occur at the same time, but it's not a good combination. "So you can't lust someone and marry them?" Martin asks.
"You can, but those marriages don't usually last very long," his mother answers. "Love is the best, son." Interesting perspective from a genre that usually portrays lust as acceptable. Even though the topic might be awkward with parents, this conversation seems natural, never turns preachy, and covers a lot of questions teenagers wrestle with but never talk about.
Two things that threw me a little: First, the British punctuation. If small things don't bother you, don't worry. I just got distracted by the lack of periods after Mr and Mrs, and the single quotation marks around 'direct quotes.'
Second, the ending was kinda weird, with Martin getting to know his real self through the gymnastics team. The whole rebuilding process was great, but the story ends at a gymnastics meet gone awry, where Martin's final words sound like they're trying to hard to be inspirational.
Aah, but those are only minor flaws in a pretty decent book. Face isn't the most well-written piece of literature I've ever come across. In many ways, I had a hard time identifying with the Londonese way of speaking, the random encounters at dance clubs. The writing style was less than fluid at times. But the book did break through with some great ideas about inner worth as it traced Martin's journey of self-discovery. It isn't just about me and how I cope with it, it's me learning to deal with other people's prejudices, Martin says at one point, a poignant statement that echoes many others found in the story.
Face is honest, intense, disturbing, and realistic. It deals with the hugely prevalent issue of outer appearances in a positive light. Zephaniah's profile, which notes his belief in "working with human rights groups, animal rights groups and other political organizations" might give the idea that the book has a slanted viewpoint, but that's not the case. While it does feel like it's written by an activist (in style, not content), Face maintains a balanced look at life that promotes the worth of people without pushing an agenda.
I wasn't amazed with Face, but I think it handled some tough stuff well, and it definitely got me thinking. Here are four stars because I wouldn't buy it for myself, but I wouldn't hesitate recommending it to others.