Speak: A Book Review

Cover of "Speak"

Cover of Speak

I had several expectations when I picked up this book. First, that it would be painful to read due to its theme. Second, that it would convey an important message. Third, that those who have sought to ban it must be wrong about their evaluations of the novel as “soft pornography.” Finally, that I would enjoy reading the book-or at least come away feeling improved for reading it.

For those of you unfamiliar with Laurie Halse Anderson‘s book Speak, this is the description for it listed on Amazon:

“Speak up for yourself–we want to know what you have to say.” From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless … because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her …. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman … who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.

Now back to my predictions. I was wrong on two counts and right on two counts.

It was not exactly painful to read; at least, not because of the subject matter. Also, I did not really come away feeling improved for the reading of it. To be honest, I felt that Speak handled the very heavy, ugly subject of rape rather lightly. Anderson focuses only on one aspect of the rape’s after-effects: alienation from friends and family. She skims over other, possibly larger issues which may arguably be more deeply-rooted in the rape and also prove more destructive to a person over time. Feelings of guilt or dirtiness or insecurity. Confusion about whether or not it was actually rape. An inability to trust anyone, or at least any males. A lack of desire to ever participate in sexual activity, voluntary or not, in the future. Etc., etc.

Instead we see that Melinda was in pain or some discomfort during the rape, that she is nervous around the predator, and that she feels isolated from the rest of the world. Which are also very real issues having to do with the attack, but I don’t believe they are necessarily the most important ones. Maybe some will argue with me. That’s fine. I can’t pretend to be an expert.

So because Anderson handles the rape so carefully – too carefully, in my opinion – I found it hard to enjoy the book or to feel improved for having read it. I understand it was YA fiction, but in my mind YA fiction has the potential to be just as beautifully crafted as anything else. Yet Anderson’s prose left something to be desired. I had very little sense of Melinda as a character. Having her speak so rarely was an interesting, meaningful choice, but the follow-through was rough. Dialogue naturally tends to lend a stronger sense of personality to a character. Melinda just felt vague. Besides that, the dialogue that was included seemed unrealistic. And Melinda’s interior monologues felt as if an adult was specifically attempting to sound like a teen. I was a teen very recently and I did not feel much of the narration resonate with my own experience.

HOWEVER.

I admire Anderson’s attempt to convey a significant message to young girls – and really anyone else who has ever felt like a victim of harassment. Speak! Tell the truth! Tell people what happened! And to the rest of us, the fortunate ones who have not been attacked so horribly – LISTEN! I don’t know why, but rape and sexual violence is one of those issues that I hold close to my heart. I feel very strongly about it and I admire anyone’s sincere efforts to raise awareness or send messages about its wrongness. But that’s a discussion for another blog post.

In no way could this be considered child or soft pornography by anyone who has read the book. It is the least graphic description of rape that I have ever encountered in literature. No explicit or sexual language. No real details about the mechanics. No glorifying of the action. I may not have loved the book itself, but I could never condone banning it for any reason. At least it’s an attempt to discuss this important social issue. If nothing else, it introduces the topic to young people in a tasteful way.

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