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Underground Reading: Sara's Face by Melvin Burgess

Saras FaceSara's Face (2006) is an intelligent, disturbing thriller from Melvin Burgess. Burgess is a popular (in the UK) author of young adult fiction, known for refusing to pull his punches. His books, despite their youth audience, deal honestly, openly and often graphically with drugs (Junk), sex (Doing It) and poverty (Lady). Sara's Face is Mr. Burgess's assault on the fame culture of modern, youth society.

Sara's Face is told as a cross between a mystery and a Lifetime biopic. An author is trying to reconstruct the tragic events involving Sara - a young wannabe - and Jonathan Heat - a disturbing and popular A-list musician.  The latter is a sinister cross between Madonna and Michael Jackson, combining all the worst traits of both.

The story is told through a series of interviews and transcripts - the latter largely from Sara's video diary. Sara and Jonathan, although they are the book's protagonists, are "not available for comment", so although they are quoted profusely, their throughts and motivations remain secret.

Sara's Face isn't Mr. Burgess's finest effort, but it is undeniably sharp - skillfully emulating the un-put-downable quality of the tabloid culture that he's lampooning. Sara is an alternately pathetic and loathesome creature - from her earliest years, she's a devious, driven, eerily adaptable sociopaths that will do anything to succeed.

Jonathan Heat is even more horrific - a artist so desperate to prolong his time in the spotlight he's completely and literally sacrificed his own identity. The message isn't subtle - stardom doesn't just require a lack of self-awareness, it requires a complete lack of self. Jonathan and Sara are prepared to be stars, but by the time they get there, the 'Jonathan' and 'Sara' identities are completely lost.

Burgess mixes up the Sun-style biopic with a few additions of his own. Sara's Face is alternately social satire, ghost story and, for a few brief moments, young adult action-adventure. The latter are probably the weakest additions to the overall story, but probably necessary to keep the reader from contemplating suicide by the half-way point.

In Sara's Face, Mr. Burgess has created another deeply-unsettling modern thriller on the nature of celebrity. Although intended for a young adult audience, the themes are depressingly ageless and will resonate with an adult reader as well.

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