Reading this book was a surreal experience in a few ways. I read a lot of contemporary YA, so I’m used to feeling a lot older than the characters. Speak was originally published in 1999, when I was ten years old. So I was younger than Melinda when this book first came out, and the high school setting actually predates my own high school experience. Yet I’m older than her now, when I read it. Time is weird, y’all.
Trigger warnings include discussion of rape and at least one scene with some racism.
Speak is Melinda’s first-person journey through depression and self-loathing after she was raped at a party the summer before Grade 9. We don’t learn this right away, of course, although anyone who is paying attention will connect the dots fairly soon. Melinda’s initial coping strategy after this trauma is to withdraw and stop talking any more than is absolutely necessary. Abandoned by her former friends because they think she called the cops to the party for no reason, Melinda walks the halls of Merryweather High alone. She pretends to like it that way, but secretly she feels broken. As the story goes on and the school year progresses, Melinda struggles to figure out what she should feel, how she should act, while her parents and other authority figures try to figure out why she has changed.
My edition is set in block format, an interesting departure from what is conventional. It matches the style of the book, though, which while not epistolary certainly feels confessional. Most of the adults in this story are not named. They’re given epithets: Mr. Neck, Hairwoman, Principal Principal, etc. Even her parents are stubbornly Mom and Dad. Melissa’s narrative voice is descriptive and eloquent yet also very succinct in how she relates events. We move swiftly from scene to scene, never wanting to linger too long. At first I wasn’t a huge fan of this style. By the end of the book, I’d adapted to it, and even if it isn’t my favourite, it kind of works for how Anderson tells the story.
I’ve read several YA books that deal with the consequences of rape or attempted rape now. Speak has the distinction of being one of the earliest, chronologically speaking, in terms of both writing and setting. There’s no texting here, no social media—the backchannel is the toilet stall door of the girls’ bathroom. In many ways, it’s these absences, these differences from what we’re used to now, that jumped out at me the most while reading. It felt very anachronistic, because other than these small cultural and technological differences, this story definitely feels like it could have been set now.
Melinda is also quite young. Not only is she unsure of how to express what happened to others, she struggles even to wrap her own head around it. Anderson has Melinda call her rapist “IT” and often uses imagery like “bunny rabbit” to describe Melinda’s dynamic with him as predator–prey. Unlike someone in Grade 11 or 12, at Grade 8 going into Grade 9, Melinda has so little experience with dating, flirting, drinking, and sex, and this adds another layer of complexity to processing her trauma. When Anderson finally has us describe the scene, it’s disjointed and occasionally difficult to follow, as one might expect from reliving a traumatic memory. Yet there’s also a nervousness to the passages. As if Melinda is worried we won’t believe her, because she doesn’t know how to explain what was happening to her.
I do wish there were more resolution here. I wish we got to see the aftermath of Melinda finding her voice and speaking up. Obviously Anderson chose to end the story where she did because she wants us to focus on Melinda’s journey to that point. I respect that even if I’m left wanting a lot more. Similarly, I find myself yearning for a little more than the somewhat stereotypical tropes deployed for the parents and authority figures. While there is an appealing kind of universality to the experience Anderson carves out in this story, it also left me feeling a bit bored. Okay, so Mom and Dad aren’t the most affectionate and attentive parents ever. Why? Could we go a bit more into that? I’m reminded a bit of Sana’s relationships with her parents in It’s Not Like It’s a Secret and how Sugiura helps us understand the full extent of those dynamics.
So really … Speak has elements of power to it, and I understand why so many people have enjoyed it and praised it. This is a book about the struggle to find one’s voice following an intense trauma. Despite being 20 years old now, it is as relevant, sadly, to our rape culture today as it was when it was written: none of this would have happened if we lived in a society that educated boys to treat women with respect and privileged consent over all else. In these regards, Speak feels like it belongs in that classics category. It has staying power. Yet like many classics, that doesn’t automatically make it perfect.