Earlier this year I read The Impossible Knife of Memory. It was a book someone had recommended to me last year, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. It was a YA book, but I thought it was a really good YA book that I still found things to relate to even in my late twenties. In fact, it’s one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year. I’m not really sure why I didn’t talk about it, actually. Maybe part of the reason was I felt like I didn’t have anything extensively to talk about with it other than it being really good. Or maybe it was back when I wasn’t writing as many posts about books.
In any case, I’ve wanted to check out another book by the author, Laurie Halse Anderson, since I finished The Impossible Knife of Memory. Speak seemed to be her claim to fame, so I added it to my to-read list. And after knocking off a good chunk of books from that list over the past several months, I finally borrowed it.
Honestly, much like The Impossible Knife of Memory, Speak is a pretty good book all around. It feels pretty different from the prior, but that’s not a bad thing. I don’t feel like I have too much to say about it, but seeing as I’ve been trying to talk about more books lately, I figure I could at least try.
Speak is about a girl just starting high school named Melinda. She called the cops during a party over the summer, and now everyone hates her. Her friends have turned into enemies and most of the student body knows what she did and hates her, too. She’s also very depressed; a traumatic incident at the party has caused her to barely talk and she has to spend the entirety of her time dealing with the aftermath.
The book takes place over the course of her freshman year, separated into four main sections cleverly titled as marking periods. In addition, her days are also separated by brief titles. I really liked this. Dealing with depression can very much feel like a day by day challenge, and I think breaking up the story into identifiable milestones like days and marking periods was a really good way of showing that. There’s even a report card at the end of each marking period that shows Melinda’s grades gradually slipping as she continues to struggle with what happened, with the exception of art.
Art is the one class she has a supportive teacher in. At the start of the year, his students randomly pick a topic out of a partially destroyed globe as their subject for their projects all year. Melinda gets a tree, and struggles to make anything good featuring the tree. Her struggles with this mirror her struggles with depression, except that with her art projects, other people can actually see her struggling to say what she needs to say.
Over time, we learn that Melinda was raped at the party. Rape is pretty much the one thing that makes me very uncomfortable in books, movies, etc. but I’ve been slowly getting used to exploring more stories that discuss it. And thankfully, the part where Melinda recalls the actual incident isn’t too graphic. In fact, the scene goes by pretty quickly and is partially blocked out by her thoughts, which I think is a good representation of how that night probably went.
It turns out the rapist goes to her school. She only refers to him as IT for a while, before being able to finally identify him by name (which again, I think represents a good way of how hard it is for her to start processing everything). And if that wasn’t bad enough, he taunts her. When he’s near, he blows in her ear. He grins at her. He winks at her. He even starts talking to her. He starts going out with one of her ex-friends, which Melinda tries to warn her about even though the friend has been pretty superficial and shitty to her for the entire year.
About 3/4 through the book, Melinda starts recovering. She gets on better terms with one of her ex-friends in art class, and through a series of events they write a warning about the rapist in one of the girls’ bathroom stalls. She starts working on projects in the yard instead of locking herself in her room, she dives more into her art projects, and she starts talking a little more.
The little progress she’s finally able to make is threatened, however, when the rapist confronts her in an unused janitor’s closet, which Melinda has been frequently using to cut class. He yells at her for spreading rumors about him and tells her she wanted what happened. He assaults her again and comes close to raping her a second time, but she manages to scream and get away from him. As she leaves the closet, another of her ex-friends (along with the sports team she’s on) sees what was about to happen.
It’s never revealed what happened to the rapist, but thanks to the sports team many of the students in school found out what really happened at the party and apologize to Melinda. This is a little weird — while I know Melinda was trying so hard to let someone know what happened, I’m not sure if she wanted so many people to find out. But she doesn’t really comment on that one way or the other, so I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. The book ends with Melinda learning to accept what’s happened, but now with a resolve to move past it.
The narration made everything about the book seem more real. Melinda is very direct. She doesn’t waste the readers’ time with long-winded explanations on why she feels the way she does. We can see it through her direct commentary on everything around her and her actions, which I think is what ultimately helps make a good book. The fact that this works well with the short, diary-like sections also adds to the book’s overall impact.
There were a couple of things that I could nitpick, though. For starters, the book is really predictable. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just a neutral fact. As soon as Melinda identified her assailant as IT, I had immediate suspicions of what happened at the party. Out of curiosity, I went back to the copyright page and scrolled down to that small list of subject matter the book contains and sure enough — rape. People more familiar with stories like this could have probably put this together from the inside flap summary alone. From then on I kind of assumed, as a YA book, Melinda would reveal what the rapist had done and gotten her friends back. And while this is more or less what happened, I’ll give the book a lot of credit for having Melinda not just “getting over” what happened. She directly acknowledges it happened and can’t forget or ignore it. It’s a permanent part of her that will always stay with her, even when she decides she needs to move on. I wasn’t expecting a mature way of ending the book like that.
Aside from Melinda, the characters are also pretty standard YA characters. The teachers range from angry and strict for no reason, weird and disconnected from the students, and in the case of the art teacher, the eccentric genius that’s passionate for his students to succeed and see the world from his point of view while being the one supportive adult in the story. With the art teacher in particular, I felt both jealous and disconnected. For me, art in high school was never particularly involved. I never learned much from my teachers and we pretty much got credit as long as we worked on something. But it was more or less a free period. When I read settings like this, I can’t help but wonder if this is what high school art was supposed to be like or if my school just sucked.
Her parents are also pretty unsupportive. Her mom is so no-nonsense that she tells Melinda she doesn’t have time for her cries for help, even though throughout the book she complains that Melinda never speaks. (Would YOU talk to someone about a traumatic event when they tell you they don’t have time for threats of running away or suicide?) The book sort of goes into a dysfunctional family system that’s been around for a while, and how it used to be better when Melinda was a kid, but it doesn’t dive deep enough. There was certainly a lot of room to explore that further, and I sort of wonder why go enough to raise questions and intrigue but not far enough to justify bringing it up in the first place.
But honestly, these are nitpicks. In other YA books this would have bugged me more, but I think the book was really good as a whole. It knew what it was about and how it wanted to show its story, and it stuck to it for the most part. It more than makes up for some of the less interesting characters. I would definitely recommend reading it if you get the chance.
Info for my edition of Speak:
- Published 2006 by Speak
- Paperback, 198 pages
- ISBN 9-780142-407325