FACE by Aimee E. Liu (Warner Books: $21.95; 356 pp.) Miabelle Chung has violent nightmares that awaken her, screaming, every single night. Part Chinese, part American, she has always felt wrong, an outsider, sleeping with a succession of blond men, running from something she can’t identify. “Face,” Aimee E. Liu’s first novel, exquisitely depicts Miabelle’s slow coming to terms with the forces that made her, in a story that is part psychological drama, part rite of passage, part literary exploration of being racially divided, and part mystery.
The protagonist in this type of novel has the difficult job of carrying the entire book squarely on her shoulders, a feat Liu accomplishes easily. We are so much a part of Miabelle’s inner life, so intimate with her pain and frustration, that while readers may root for her to find the truth, there is also a nervous sensation of not really wanting to know. Through Miabelle, New York’s Chinatown becomes a scary, shiny, complicated place where everyone holds some kind of horrific secret.
One of the few flaws in “Face” comes toward the end. The mysteries of Miabelle’s past are finally revealed to her, and that’s the problem--they are revealed to her. It might have been much more effective plotting if Miabelle had to pry them one by one from a reluctant source. However, that is a largely cosmetic concern in a novel where window-dressing is of secondary importance.