Speak, is Laurie Halse Anderson’s first novel and a National Book Award nominee in the young people’s literature category. It was perhaps because it is marketed as a young adult title that I didn’t read this book earlier. It was first published on 1999; I was actually surprised at its age as, unfortunately, the subject matter – rape – is still highly relevant.
Despite its marketed literature category, Speak’appeals to both young and adults. I have become totally absorbed in the story from the very first page. Laurie Halse Anderson is a gifted writer and she approaches this difficult topic- rape in the brutal world of adolescence- with clarity, raw honesty and emotion.
Melinda, a freshman high school, was a usual teenager girl. She used to have friends and live a normal teenage life, but after being raped by a schoolmate during a summer party – a crime that no one but her and the perpetrator, whom she calls IT, knows about – she retreats inside herself, trying to deal with the trauma of this experience. Her parents, are not indifferent, but they have they own issues, their fighting isolates Melinda from them. Melinda becomes depressed, unable to function well. At school she is an outcast. She skips school regularly, she wonders in strange places, she is trying to deal with her trauma. Only her art teacher, Mr Freeman, can see inside her, he recognises her potential, and encourage her to find herself through her art.
“The next time you work on your trees, don’t think about trees. Think about love, or hate, or joy, or rage – whatever makes you feel something, makes your palms sweat or your toes curl. Focus on that feeling. When people do not express themselves, they die one piece at a time.
Melinda becomes hyper-aware of violence; her narrative is cruel, cynical, painful but also powerful. Not wanting to talk, she is shielding herself from contact with others by living in a heroic and distressful isolation. Confused and lonely, Melinda explores her identity and tries to express her feelings through art, in her sanctuary.
“My face becomes a Picasso sketch, my body slicing into pieces.”
There are no answers in the questions Melinda poses, and the ending of the story is neither happy or sad. But it feels right and hopeful. Healing is not complete but Melinda is finally able to stand up for herself. She regains her voice and power and finally she is able to Speak.