Review: When I Was Joe

When Ty witnesses the knife murder of another boy and helps the police identify the culprits, he’s forced to live in a witness protection program with his mother. As they pack, a bomb is thrown through the front door of their apartment, nearly killing them both. Over the coming months Ty becomes Joe, takes on a new look, and starts at a new school. To his surprise, he finds he is attracting the attention of the girls in his class, and the boys find his need to conceal his real identity cool — being Joe is not so bad. His ability as a runner is spotted, and he starts training under a college student who is a Para-Olympics contender, but this special treatment attracts resentment. Somehow Joe keeps drawing attention to himself despite his efforts to remain anonymous. Then his beloved grandmother back in London is badly injured in an attack designed to flush Ty out of hiding, and he realizes something must be done. This wonderfully gripping and intelligent novel movingly depicts a young man’s confusing sense of identity in extreme danger — a remarkable debut from a great new writing talent.–From Amazon

Some of my earlier readers may remember how fanatical I was about David Cristofano’s The Girl She Used to Be. When I was approached to read and review Keren David’s When I Was Joe, I was excited because I had really enjoyed reading an adult perspective on the Witness Protection Program and wondered how a juvenile rendition would compare, particularly one set in England.

After Ty witnesses a murder, he and his mother are thrown into the Witness Protection Program and given new identities. The previously uncool, unpopular Ty reinvents himself as Joe–an athlete who has all the girls at his new school lusting after him. Ty’s mother is more reluctant, and he is forced to help take care of her as she becomes increasingly depressed by their new life. He worries that she will give them away and he will have to give up running, his new friends, and his girlfriend. The book will keep you wondering whether Ty and his mom will get to return to their old lives, continue on with the identities they have been given, or be forced to recreate themselves all over again. Their journey continues in a sequel, Almost True, which I hope to read when it releases in the U.S.

This book is full of a lot of British slang that will likely feel unfamiliar to American readers, but it did not obstruct my reading pleasure in any way. If anything, it was fun to pick up some new jargon. The writing kept me enthralled throughout, and I would especially recommend this to those who are fond of male POV books. Additionally, I thought Keren David did an exceptional job exploring topics like the Para-Olympics and self-injury without them feeling too “issuey.”

I’m not sure how much of this story is actually plausible, but I really enjoyed reading it nonetheless. Books about teens are constantly exploring identity, but there is something even more fascinating to me about the issue of identity when it is stripped away and reformed. The question of “Who am I?” becomes all the more complicated when you realize how much your identity can change by altering a name, appearance, and location. Who would you be if you had to give up the life you’ve always known?

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