Faceless by Alyssa Sheinmel has a particularly harrowing opening; it’s not giving much away (it’s on the back cover, for one thing) to say the first chapters see the main character, Maisie, burnt in a horrifying accident in which her face is partially destroyed. She swiftly receives a face transplant, which carries with it plenty of repercussions. Reading these early chapters, I wasn’t sure if I had the stomach for the rest of the book and I was mentally reaching for Heir of Fire instead (hmm, ironic), but I didn’t, and I’m glad; Faceless is definitely worth sticking with.
I’d compare this book with Eric Lindstrom’s Not If I See You First; both portray a teenage girl dealing with a terrible accident and its painful and traumatic consequences, and neither author feels the need to make their protagonist 100% sympathetic, which I admire. Where Not If I See You First‘s Parker had had time to grow brittle and abrasive as a result of dealing with her blindness, we witness firsthand Maisie’s accident and attempts to recover, both physically and mentally. There’s a really visceral sense to some of Maisie’s descriptions of her injuries, and these are quite difficult to read, but really well-written by Sheinmel.
A large part of Maisie’s narrative is about developing a new identity, and so the novel asks lots of questions about the extent to which physical appearance makes up a person’s character; this is, I think, particularly relevant with teenage girls like Maisie. Although she isn’t someone who seems to have been obsessed with her looks, the accident forces Maisie to reevaluate the importance of appearances, making her realise that she took being pretty for granted. I imagine it’s something that would resonate more with an image-conscious teenager than a 33 year old who frequently fails to brush her hair before going to work.
Something I liked about Faceless was Maisie’s parents; I’ve complained a lot recently about terrible and/or absent parents in YA fiction, but Sheinmel avoids this by creating two parents who are a) present and b) concerned about their kid. Neither of Maisie’s parents are idealised, but they really add something to the story. Being a parent myself has made me hyper-aware of how mums and dads are presented and used in the books I read, and I am now extra-susceptible to uncontrollable emotions relating to touching scenes between mothers/fathers and their children. So Faceless did make my eyes leak a bit. I’m not even sorry.
Despite its harrowing initial subject matter, Faceless is really a book about recovery and grief, friendship and love, and, perhaps most importantly, identity. Maisie is forced to deal with so much in such a short space of time that you can’t help but feel for her, and Sheinmel depicts all this in a completely convincing way. I really recommend Faceless.