Every Monday, the CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are featuring Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (trigger warnings: mentions of rape, thoughts of suicide).
In Anderson’s stunning first young adult novel, “Speak,” the protagonist, Melissa, is a close first-person narrator, and often her thoughts are presented as an organized stream of consciousness. Initially, a reader learns Melissa’s backstory: the summer before her freshman year of high school, Melissa busted a party, causing friends and strangers alike to shun her. The real reason she busted the party is that she was raped; however, she tells no one this fact, while some other party members got into trouble for underage drinking. She stays in her own mind, but this too is becoming a hostile environment. While there is a flashback scene to the party, Melissa otherwise stops herself from directly thinking about the rape. Through most of the book Melissa blames herself for what happened, thinking that she was drunk and naive at the party, and readers slowly see her mind shift.
At school, Melissa withdraws from her studies, becomes more depressed, and often skips class to sit in a janitor’s closet that she cleaned up. The one class she enjoys is an art class with a rather open-minded teacher who becomes the closest version of a mentor to Melissa. Encouraging Melissa to try expressing herself and her emotions through art, the art teacher oversees Melissa’s attempts to create a perfect tree over the course of the year. While near mute for the majority of the novel, Melissa realizes that she must speak up when an old friend of hers might start dating the male who raped her.
In the end, Melissa gets to confront the rapist, and takes control of the situation. To me, this seemed to send the worrying message that one should be hopeful for retribution, and that it is necessary for closure. Additionally, the novel ended very quickly with everyone switching to Melissa’s side, which just struck me as too much too soon to be realistic.
Throughout the novel, the prose is on the weak side, the symbolism is heavy-handed, and all of the characters are rather flat. Rather than being detrimental, as these would be in most novels, they served to strengthen the reliability and realistic feel of the young narrator. The book does not read like an adult recalling their teenage years, it actually reads as though a young teen were thinking and narrating the entire novel.
While I found this a rather difficult novel to read, it did possess some gripping and darkly humorous moments. I would recommend this book to anyone able to handle the subject matter. This book is not only thought provoking on the subject of sexual violence, but also of alienation in high school.