Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

I feel like I can’t discuss this book without spoiling it. So be warned! Also, I feel like the “secret” in this book is sooo out of the bag. I mean, I’m sure that everyone who comes to this book nowadays has a strong inkling of what’s going on. This ninth-grader starts high school, but there’s something wrong. None of her friends from middle school will speak to her. And she’s curiously withdrawn. She never says a damn thing. It turns out that she was raped at a party over the summer and when she called the cops in the aftermath the party got busted and everything in the world’s gone to shit.

This novel is pretty harrowing. I’m sure there are like a zillion rape-themed YA novels, but I’ve never read one before. And there’s something in the way that the novel is written. The main character is so isolated. There aren’t many scenes with dialogue. And when there are, the main character rarely speaks (although she is not entirely silent–she does speak to one of her friends, a bit).

In many ways, the novel is a bit generic. For instance, it does that familiar thing where it recasts high school as a world in itself and spends endless time dissecting its cliques in anthropological detail. And the main character has no distinguishing characteristics. I got no sense of who she was, where she came from, what she liked, whether she had any hopes or dreams. Although (unlike most YA novels) this novel actually focuses on the mechanics of school–the tests, teachers, grades, labs, etc–I get no sense that the character thinks much of the academic side of school.

And that was alright. Sometimes I get tired of characters. After awhile, it all seems so constructed. A character has these three traits and these three quirks and this love interest and that desire. This character likes indie music soooo much and this other character is into theater and this third character loves classic movies. It’s so constructed. And, in some ways, it’s distancing. That’s not who people are. There’s infinite variety between people, but the variety is something more than in the ways we brand ourselves. I’ve thought a lot about what makes people different, and I’m still not sure that I can really explain it. But there’s something essential and elemental to a person. When you look at someone–anyone–he or she will usually have different mannerisms and catchphrases and vocal style. Even in conversation, they’ll have a different way of going from topic to topic and from idea to idea.

The ‘build-a-character’ style of storytelling seems to elide all of that. It implies that human beings are like lego people: the same basic template but with different clothes (and maybe a cool blaster gun in our hands or a big red wig stuck onto our head).

In Speak, the main character has few of those external markers, but you do get that sense of voice: the sense that something different and interesting is going on inside her head. There’s a sense of individuality in the way that the words fit together and in the things that her eye sees. That’s a hard trick to pull off; most novels don’t manage it, or, if they do, they do it in a way that feels like an authorial imposition.