It’s been a while since I read book with such a big premise that asked for so much trouble: a white, Jewish man undergoes surgery to become African-American. You don’t need a background in critical theory to find this wildly provocative, and were it written almost any other way it’d likely be unpublishable. But Jess Row is a frighteningly smart author, and his aim is to start a conversation, not a fight. That’s what the best books do. But at risk of hyperbole, I’ll go a step further – Your Face In Mine is, as Martha Southgate writes on the dust jacket, “a necessary book.”
Kelly Thorndike is a lapsed academic. He manages a struggling public radio station in Baltimore while his Ph.D thesis about two obscure Chinese poets gathers dust in a university library. Sometimes he has conversations with his wife who, along with their young daughter, died over a year ago in a car accident. He is in a haze. One morning, a man calls out to him across a grocery store parking lot – “It’s Martin,” the man says. In a flash, Kelly remembers. Martin was Kelly’s friend from high school, the bassist for their punk-rock trio. He hasn’t seen Martin in ten years. Martin, who was then white and Jewish, is now unmistakably African-American. Martin wants to hire Kelly to write a book that chronicles his transformation and arrival in a new life. He wants Kelly to reveal his story to the world.
This may sound like speculative fiction – it’s not. The details of the procedure are discussed eventually, but the focus (rightly) is Martin’s motivation. Under the vague guise of a “biographer”, Kelly shadows Martin in his new life. No one in Martin’s circle knows the secret of his past; they assume Kelly was hired to write a piece on successful black businessmen. Kelly himself isn’t sure why Martin tapped him, someone with potentially ruinous access to Martin’s old life, to tell his story. But the reasons Martin hired Kelly are complex, fascinating and unexpected – as Row walks us down the corridors of Martin’s past we find that Kelly, too, has much hidden away.
Your Face In Mine might be poised to cause a stir when it comes out in August. But not, I hope, for mere controversy. Of equal importance, I’d reckon, is the arrival of Jess Row as a novelist. His book is written in lush, confident prose, has the pulse of a thriller, the heart of an American epic, and the burning mind of speculative fiction. Your Face In Mine deftly explores some hefty philosophical subjects – identity, self and transformation, to name a few – without sacrificing the pace or prose of the storytelling. And it leaves you, as they say, with a lot to chew on. Strongly recommended.