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Jess Row builds his debut novel on an intriguing physical shift

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Jess Row’s debut novel explores race, genetic histories.
Courtesy
Tod Goldberg

Three and a half stars

Your Face in Mine Jess Row, $28.

Sexual reassignment is common enough now that it’s the grist for reality TV, but what if you wanted to change your race, wanted to reboot your genetic history? In Jess Row’s debut novel, Your Face in Mine, he contemplates this very idea. It makes for a thought-provoking, often brilliant work about what it means to be who we are … and aren’t.

There are a million sci-fi novels that have a device allowing characters to shape shift, but Your Face in Mine is less concerned with the machinery of the action than with the emotional and philosophical. The book’s narrator, a public radio administrator named Kelly, sees a black man he recognizes on the streets of Baltimore, but not because he recognizes his face, more the essence of who the person is underneath his skin. And that person is Martin Lipkin, an old high school friend, who was a middle-class Jew, and is now a black man named Martin Wilkinson.

Martin wants Kelly to document his life, to be his “Alex Haley” so that the world will understand his groundbreaking racial reassignment surgery, though it soon becomes clear that their chance meeting was no mere happenstance. Both men harbor painful secrets—including the suicide of their childhood friend Alan, a boy neither young man would ever have been equipped to save—and Kelly, bereft with grief over the recent death of his Chinese wife and child in a car accident, starts to look like the perfect rube. Why has Martin chosen him? What does he know about Kelly’s own split identity? The more the novel unfolds, the more important these questions become and, yet, the novel loses some of its narrative drive as they are revealed, the book pushed toward a more plot-heavy resolution.

Not that a novel about the subtextual and hypertextual racial history of interaction needs to remain on a strictly intellectual plain—we already have The Human Stain—and can’t descend into the machinery of conspiracy, which Your Face in Mine does, since that’s a part of our racial history, too. Rather, it’s when Row plumbs the relationship between Kelly and Martin that the novel sings with a unique kind of yearning—for the selfish piety of youth, for the parents they did and didn’t have—and that’s a powerful magic.

“You think you’ve hit bottom, but you’ve only hit a trapdoor,” Martin tells Kelly during a pivotal conversation about Martin’s racial turn. “Maybe that’s what memory is like,” Kelly responds, and with that the seeds of the novel’s second half are planted. This turn may remind some readers of the excellent Tom McCarthy, and that’s an apt comparison—both writers are obsessed with the nature and manipulation of identity—and while it’s well done, there’s a momentum shift that takes this into the neo-dystopian, which seems appropriate, if not fully realized. But this is a story finally about alienation, and Row finds that again in the final pages, to great, sad success.

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