Book review

Face by Benjamin Zephaniah (1999)

This is a story about Martin. He's the leader of the Gang of Three, and the classroom joker. He lives in the 'new East End' where there is a difficult brew of white, Caribbean, African and Asian families. You have to be careful what you say and who you say it to on the streets of Martin's neighbourhood - not that Martin is particularly racist:

'I ain't got nothing against blacks, they're just different, they dance different and everything.'

So it is rather to Martin's surprise, that he finds himself having a great time at a rap club. Leaving the club later, Martin is offered a ride home by someone he knows vaguely from school. He doesn't know the car is stolen though, and it isn't a ride home, it's a ride to self-destruction. In the inevitable accident Martin suffers terrible burns to his face.

Can you imagine waking up in a hospital, and not even knowing for sure whether you have still got all your limbs? As Martin slowly comes to consciousness he checks, one by one. Everything seems to be pretty well OK. His face is the last thing he bothers to think about. He can't really feel the damage, you see, because of the painkillers.

Martin has a lot of thinking to do, and in his hospital room he has the time and space to do it. Obviously, he has to come to terms with his new and damaged face. Not only that, all his friends have to come to terms with his new face.

Also, Martin has to learn to deal with all the different reactions of ordinary people to his terrible injuries. It's all a bit different being on the receiving end of other people's prejudices, about disabilities, or race, or anything else. Benjamin Zephaniah is a black poet and writer himself, so perhaps he has made Martin white so that the message about prejudice can be well learnt.

Written in very simple language, Zephaniah brings the streets to life - I especially like the scene where Natalie misinterprets the three girls' smiles and gets ready for a fight, only to be asked if she likes clubbing. You can warm to these characters, for all their faults.

What can I read next?

For another 'accident' story, you might like to look at this book by Sandra Glover:

If you enjoy books about the rough deals that life can throw at young people, all set very much in the present, you might like to have a look at these by Michael Coleman:

  • Tag
  • Weirdo's War

Also Malorie Blackman writes well about problems in school:

And practically anything by Gillian Cross should interest you:

And I'll just mention Melvin Burgess too:

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