Book Review: “Your Face in Mine” by Jess Row, published by Riverhead Books, 2014
Would you change your race if you could? In Jess Row’s provocative novel, Martin Lipkin does just that. He undergoes a racial reassignment surgery, changing his looks from white to black. He assumes a new identity and culture as Martin Wilkinson, a successful businessman.
Martin feels he was born in the wrong body just like a transsexual. His wife, a black woman, and their two adopted girls know nothing about his real identity.
Kelly Thorndike narrates the story. While shopping in an Asian grocery store, he sees a black man. “I feel an unmistakable shock of recognition,” he says. “I know this guy…yet I’m sure I’ve never seen this face before.” The stranger approaches Kelly. To his surprise, it’s his high school friend Martin, except his skin color, hair, and even his voice and manner of speaking have changed.
This chance encounter turns Kelly’s life upside down. He is an academic who has lived in China, where he met his Chinese wife. She and their daughter died in a car accident. Kelly is still grieving, plus he’s about to lose his job. He’s ripe for change, so he accepts the offer to write Martin’s story—the entire saga of how he became a black man and why.
As Martin’s biographer, Kelly follows his friend around. We find out that they used to have a band, but they became estranged after Alan, the third member of the band, died of a drug overdose. Kelly learns that racial reassignment is in fact Martin’s business. He works with a Thai doctor, the only one in the world who has succeeded in performing the surgery. Martin wants to introduce the procedure globally, hence the need for Kelly to write Martin’s story.
The two men travel to Bangkok, where Kelly meets a Korean woman who has undergone the procedure to become white and a Japanese Rastafarian turned black because he wants to move to Jamaica and belong there.
Novel with Many Layers
This literary novel has many thought-provoking layers. In addition to Martin’s radical overhaul of his identity, there’s Kelly’s lingering guilt about Alan’s death. We also learn about his struggles as a white scholar specializing in Chinese studies.
Even Martin’s motivation for asking Kelly to write his story comes into question. Was their meeting at the grocery store serendipitous or did Martin target Kelly all along as a possible racial-reassignment recruit? Is Martin exploiting Kelly’s grief to push him toward becoming a Chinese man? Maybe it’s Kelly’s last chance at happiness. After all, he already speaks, thinks, and breathes Chinese. He “talks” to his dead Chinese wife every day.
Jess Row is an audacious writer with a distinct style and a strong voice. He doesn’t use quotation marks to signify dialogue. He includes transcripts of tapes, academic papers, business proposal, website content, email, and instant messaging texts throughout the book.
Row, an award-winning author of two short story collections, writes in an unhurried literary fashion, although his subject matter could have been a good fodder for a commercial book. Put racial reassignment surgery in the context of a dystopian society, and you have a potential commercial science fiction.
But, no, Row’s novel is a meditation on race, identity, love, and grief. It made me ask myself: Should my race and identity be about who I am or who I want to be? I didn’t get the meaning of the title until near the end of the novel.
A dear friend of mine recommended this book. I’m glad she did. I haven’t read a novel as original as this in a long time. If you’re up for something unique and intellectual, and if the lack of quotation marks doesn’t bother you (Cormac McCarthy fans should feel right at home!), then this novel is for you.