Friday, May 31, 2013

SPEAK


Review of SPEAK by LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON

I knew I would love this book and yet I avoided it for years, because while I expected from all I've heard that the story would be amazing I also expected it would be dark and possibly a hard, painful read. As I've mentioned before, dark content doesn't ruin a book for me if the author handles it well, but it's never been a selling point and I don't seek out dark books. In fact, I try pacing the darker stuff I read, because I'm perhaps an overly empathetic person and well-written tragedies, violence, traumas, etc. can leave me depressed for days or weeks. (I've found reading something light at the same time and switching between dark and light significantly lessens this effect.) SPEAK did have its difficult moments, but it still exceeded all the gushing reports about its brilliance.
I'm not sure what percentage of people who have already heard of this book know the gist of the premise, but I'll work under the assumption that you don't know what it's about. Someone told me exactly what SPEAK examines and that didn't in the least spoil the book for me, but I'm going to avoid spoilers at first in case that's your preference and then give warning before I start talking more candidly about content. 
 
So the spoiler-free summary: Melinda's drawing into herself. She hardly even speaks anymore, a quirk interpreted as disrespectful by most adults and weird by most of her peers. "Drawing into herself" might be both an accurate and incorrect word choice at the same time. While some of her solitary behavior is by choice, she's also being ostracized by pretty much everyone else at her high school for calling the cops on a big party last year, an act that effectively ended most of her friendships and any potential ones.

What stuck me immediately about SPEAK, something no one in all their raving had mentioned, was the fantastic writing style. Anderson makes some unique, unusual writing choices that totally work for this voice and this character. The book isn't told in chapters, but rather four huge chunks - the quarters of Melinda's school year, cut up into quick scenes each with their own title. For that matter, Melinda's voice comes through so strongly that she feels like a real person. That's what makes the story so impacting. An otherwise identical book with a flat protagonist would equal a flat book, but because Melinda feels so real I ached that I couldn't reach in and help her. That being said, the fact that I couldn't orchestrate her actions made her own victories all the more pronounced. Now I understand why this book has become such a beloved classic. 

If you haven't yet read SPEAK and want to do so without any spoilers, now is the time to stop reading this review.

What many of you may already know is that this is a book about rape. I already knew that going into the book and, though Melinda doesn't use that term for quite a while, I expect I would have guessed as much early on and I certainly don't think knowing so before she says so in any way diminishes the emotional impact. What makes SPEAK incredible is not the content, but the character. Melinda feels so real it's like discovering this horrible trauma happened to your own friend and she's been keeping it a shameful secret all this time.
I specifically read the tenth anniversary edition, definitely worth checking out for the additional material. The book opens with a poem crafted primarily with snippets from all the emails Anderson has received over the years about SPEAK. I can't think about it too much, let alone quote from it, or I might start crying again. Beautiful. And exactly the kind of evidence needed in censorship discussions as proof that works with dark content can be healing, lifesaving even, when they're well-written and reach the right hands.
At the end of the book there's also an interview with Anderson that I found fascinating, sometimes horrifically fascinating, unfortunately. One question in particular and her entirely unexpected answer will probably stick in my mind the rest of my life.
Have any readers ever asked questions that shocked you?
I have gotten one question repeatedly from young men.
These are guys who liked the book, but they are honestly confused.
They ask me why Melinda was so upset about being raped.
Anyone else feeling like the floor just dropped out from under them? Anderson goes on to say, “The first dozen times I heard this, I was horrified. But I heard it over and over again.” She presents her own interpretation, one that makes sense to me. Anderson suggests that men are raised to think sex isn't a big deal. With that mindset, being forced into having sex against your will seems annoying and perhaps unpleasant, but it’s just sex so what's the big deal? Anyway, learning so many young men out there still don't see why a woman could be so scarred by being raped shocked and depressed me. The good news is that both this book and Anderson’s responses to questions like that work towards battling those attitudes. Discussion leads change.
If you haven't read SPEAK yet it's about time you do.

3 comments:

  1. Hello, I am now reading Speak in English which is not my native language. There is a lot of wordplay and symbolism, and some things I cannot understand.. could you give me a helping hand?! For instance, when she sees Mr Freeman in "Dark Act" sitting on a blue broken cricket husk, what does she mean?? Hope to hear from you and thank you for the wonderful review which gave me the motive to look for this book and read it!!

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  2. Well, I'm really glad you liked my review, but I have to admit: I don't tend to remember details as specific as "blue broken cricket husk" months after reading a book. Even if I did, though, I would hesitate to tell you what it means. I'm a big believer that art (including writing) is open to interpretation and no one interpretation is wrong. If "blue broken cricket husk" means something to you, you're not wrong. Of course, people are often speculating about what the writer meant...and for that you can only know by asking the writer!

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  3. Thank you so much for your answer! There's so much to think about in this book, and I absolutely love it! So, yes, maybe I'll just follow its lead and trust my instinct. Looking forward to reading more of your suggestions.

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