‘There’s loads of girls prettier than me. Anyone can look good. Talent – that’s not it either. They train you up, they work on your voice. If it’s no good they change it in the studio. Talent’s cheap.’
Sara wants to be famous, and when the legendary rock star Jonathan Heat offers to train her up and pay for her cosmetic surgery, it’s like a dream come true.
But what if there’s a hidden price? And is Sara willing to pay it?
Sara’s Face is written as though it is a true story that has been novelised, with Melvin Burgess adopting a role similar to that of an interviewer or researcher; introducing Sarah and speaking directly to the reader about her thoughts and actions throughout the book. When Burgess isn’t narrating, Sara herself speaks in first person, through a mix of speech, diary entries and introspective monologues.
Sara is a 16-year-old girl with a family and a boyfriend and ambitions and passions, yet, like many teenagers, is grossly insecure about her appearance and her popularity, to the point of coming across as slightly psychologically unstable. When a new craze sweeps Sara’s school – wearing masks depicting the face of weird and unsettling rock star Jonathan Heat – it provides the catalyst for Sara to abandon rational thought and enter a nightmarish world that is sickening, dangerous and sinister; a world that is created for her by Heat and his doctor/surgeon Wayland Kaye.
Heat is a man so insecure and confused that he has resorted to extensive plastic surgery on the advice of Kaye, who has carried out so many operations on the star that the nerve endings in Heat’s face have crumpled and died – resulting in him having a collection of ‘masks’ that he wears 24/7. Heat craves a new face, a proper face, and falls in love with Sara’s – preying on her in his perverse and creepy way, convincing her to move in with him, promising her that he will allow Kaye to ‘make her beautiful’ – all the while planning to have Kaye steal her face for himself. Sara is at first happy to go through with this deal, not really understanding how much of her identity and sanity are caught up in her own features. Throughout her stay in Heat’s mansion, Kaye and Heat conduct macabre experiments on Sara’s body and mind, most of which you are told about via Sara’s responses and personal thoughts, as she begins to realise what kind of men they really are and what kind of world she has fallen into.
Sara’s Face is creepy, unnerving, secretive and sickening, yet addictive like a drug. I was drawn into Sara’s life and became obsessed with her to the extent she is obsessed with Heat; I noticed the rise and fall between her psychotic episodes and her periods of sanity, I could tell when she was lying or imagining or dreaming. As she gets closer to realising her fate, Sara’s journal entries become more desperate and unhinged, at times being genuinely frightening. The mood of the whole book never steers far from eerie, and Burgess proves himself to be a master at creating suspense and terror. Sara’s Face is an intense read, gripping and horrible, a scary reflection on the lengths the human body and mind can and will go to in the strive for perfection. Some of the horrors are barely plausible, others are far too close to everyday life for comfort.
I felt cold, uncomfortable and genuinely horrified at times, but as a firm lover of fantasy and thriller books, I was engrossed in every page and consumed by a desperate desire to find out what happens to Sara and Heat and Kaye. Any sympathy I felt for Heat in the first few chapters quickly turned into revulsion, matched only by that which I felt for Kaye. Sara was a hard character to like, but her age and innocence and instability have you rooting for her anyway, trapped in a world that should never even have become an option for her.
I couldn’t put Sara’s Face down until I’d finished it, and now I have, I can’t get the faint sense of unease out of my head. I’d recommend this book for any lovers of horror, crime, and fantasy, and those who want a book to make them think. This is not a nice story nor a typically ‘enjoyable’ read, but I’m glad I have read it and I’d definitely pick up another title by Burgess.