You’ll find Speak in the YA section, but don’t let that fool you; this is a difficult, important read that looks at (spoiler) sexual assault, trauma, and social ostracization, and which utilizes some collage elements, strong stylistic choices, and some interesting obfuscation of the passage of time. There’s almost an experimental feel to the disjointed, sometimes confusing prose that really helps to build the internal world of a trauma survivor and the external pressures that affect her ability to move on.
YA Book of the Month
When Melinda starts her freshman year, she no longer has any friends, but she seems possibly too damaged to really feel the effects of being a social pariah. Laurie Halse Anderson deepens the sense of Melinda’s isolation by almost never writing Melinda dialogue; other characters speak to her, but it’s very rare that we see her respond out loud. Her voice is made central through its absence. Melinda receives a lot of negative attention for her inability or refusal to speak, especially from one of her teachers who views her silence as insolence and often punishes her for it. A classmate, Heather, takes advantage of her silence by projecting the friend she wants onto Melinda, including trying to get Melinda to completely redecorate her room to look like Heather’s. I don’t know about you, but the way my room looked when I was fifteen was incredibly important to me and very personal, and someone trying to change it would’ve felt like they were trying to change my identity. Heather makes the mistake of thinking that Melinda’s quietness means that she has no personality.
Healing Through Art
Melinda starts to redevelop her voice through her art class. In that space, no one demands that she speak aloud, but she’s given an invitation and a way to express herself. She doesn’t even believe that the assignment they’re given for the year – conveying one word through whatever forms of art they choose – can be real, because it seems like too much fun. In a world where her trauma and fear stands in her way in every direction, her art class gives her a rope to climb to see past everything in her way. It’s through her art that we start to understand more about who she is and what she’s been through, including one extremely strange piece involving a turkey skeleton. Art helps her metabolize the difficult things in her life: the awkward and cumbersome negative attention from her parents or their unintentional neglect, the abrupt and complete loss of her relationship with her best friend, the harsh judgments of the other students.
Though she starts the book out almost completely isolated, including somewhat from her parents, people do manage to work their way into her world. There’s her lab partner, a smart boy who helps her organize a protest to an assignment, even though he doesn’t understand why she refuses to speak. There’s her art teacher, who communicates with her through commentary on her work, support for her many unfruitful attempts on her project, and through his own work. And there’s a girl who used to be in her group of friends before they iced her out, who helps her do some vindicating vandalism and who seems to understand that the way Melinda can interact with others is through art. These points of support help her move through the murky waters of unprocessed trauma and the loss or estrangement of what had been formative, stabilizing relationships. Melinda’s punishment, both overt, like from her parents for her going to a party, and insidious, like the ostracization from her peers, all stems from her attempt to tell someone what happened to her. It makes sense that the relationships that show up to restabilize her are in some way linked to her lack of speech.
A Sexual Assault Survivor Story With A Happy Ending
This paragraph contains a huge spoiler! There’s something wonderful and amazing in that Melinda gets her voice back in a second confrontation with her rapist: one where she wins and people come to her aid. As a sexual assault survivor, the moment when she screams “NO” and holds him off with a jagged piece of broken glass made me want to stand up and cheer. In real life, it’s all too rare to get a moment of victory over someone who assaulted you. This book can be very difficult to read because of how well Anderson paints Melinda’s trauma response, but the payoff it offers – that moment of victory, the support of the girls in the hall, Melinda’s sudden popularity after everyone finds out what really happened – is too big to name.
Speak is a haunting portrait of psychic pain that manages to end in triumph. The final act of the book isn’t her rapist’s comeuppance or the return of positive social attention, but Melinda’s final art project: a tree that finally grows.
About The Author:
Carling Mars (she/her) is a queer, genderqueer, mentally ill, disabled person (those last two go together) living in Salt Lake City with her wife, a rabbit, and a cat. Her book, feeling things in public places, is available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @ohmycarling for more reviews and short fiction pieces.