Book Review: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson/13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Firstly: spoiler alert. Don’t read this post if you have not read either of the above books and would like to! I will try not to ruin too much, but it will be difficult to avoid completely.

Last week, I finally got around to reading two books that have been on my “to read” list for ages: “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson and “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher. Both books are frequently mentioned in the same online lists; both are frequently borrowed from the library by the same pupils; both are about “hard-hitting real-life issues”, these being rape and suicide respectively.

I absolutely loved “Speak”.

I absolutely hated “13 Reasons Why”.

I will start with the positives.

Speak

Speak is about a girl who has started high school barely speaking after an event over summer that isn’t immediately identified. As well as being evidently hugely tramatised by said event, Melinda’s friends thinks that she called the police on a party, thus she is ostracised and essentially becomes an outcast.

1. I loved the character of Melinda. Throughout the novel, there is a strong sense of her getting stronger, of her realising the gravity of what has happened to her. This growth and healing is mirrored in the art class metaphor of the tree, which is used throughout and works really well. Melinda is a victim, but she is also a regular high-school student. Anderson does a really good job of portraying humour and letting Melinda’s personality shine through, in spite of everything. It is interesting to read the reaction of Melinda’s peers to her “weird” behaviour and I think it does make you think about why people behave the way they do.

2. Anderson paints a really sharp picture of high school. It would be very easy to see all the characters who are horrible to Melinda for imagined reasons as one-dimensional nasties and stupid for not seeing what we see, but Anderson manages to make them seem human, as well as enabling us to condemn their behaviour. Heather is a a good friend in that she makes friends with Melinda in the beginning despite the fact that no one else wants to. We see her go from an accepting friend, to someone who wants to fit in and in doing so seems to forget the true meaning of friendship. I thought Heather was an interesting, abeit frustrating character who perfectly escapsulated that need to fit in during high school, that obsession with what everyone else thinks. Rachel/Rachelle is not a sympathetic character for the majority of the book and does some terrible things, but is evident that she too is struggling with her identity. Her reaction is important to understand and, I think, perfectly illustrates why this book is so important.

3. I have heard comments that the ending is too convenient and that many rape victims do not get a resolution and do not “speak”; they simply have to live with it. However, I think if Anderson had opted for a more realistic ending then the whole point of the novel would have been moot: that is, that speaking out about rape and sexual assault is important. Which it is. Anything that raises awareness of this is, in my opinion, a resolutely Good Thing.

I remember a little while back hearing about an American politician calling for “Speak” to be banned because it depicts “sex”, or words to that effect. I remember hearing the outcry over this, because it is a book about rape, and rape is not sex, and children need to know that it happens because they will almost definitely, in their lives, know someone very well who has been the victim of sexual assault. There was lots of talk about whether we should we want children to read about how the world should be (or how we’d like it to be), or how it really is? And the answer is, of course, both. Of course books should sometimes be a form of escapism and fun with it, but the world is not perfect and bad things do happen; fiction can be and is an incredibly important tool in educating children about how to deal with situations that arise in the real world. “Speak” is an excellent example of this type of fiction.

As Anderson herself puts it:

” […] censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them”.

13 Reasons Why

There probably aren’t thirteen reasons why I didn’t like this book, but there are a few:

1. Do people commit suicide for quantifiable reasons, or because they are mentally ill? Perhaps both. However….

2. Most of the time, people who commit suicide do not leave notes. Those left never know the reasons. The idea that if you kill yourself you can make everyone who ever wronged you sorry somehow, that they will all know what they did wrong and will feel bad, is simply not how it generally happens. When you commit suicide, that’s it. The end. Those who do it can forget about trying to control anything after they’re gone: they can’t. I feel that portraying suicide in the way Asher does here is dangerous because it makes it seem as though, through killing herself, Hannah has achieved a kind of “justice” against everyone who wronged her, by letting them know exactly what they did and letting them live with the guilt. In reality, suicide is generally an act of desperation by individuals who are so ill that they can’t think straight, let alone organise some kind of revenge-based scavenger hunt for completion after they are gone.

3. Mental illness can take away perspective and make an individual self-involved. However, I was troubled by Hannah’s treatment of Jessica; how, when she witnessed Jessica’s rape, she was only concerned with how it made her feel about things. There was only a passing thought of how Jessica’s life might have been ruined by events. And then she adds to Jessica’s woes by partially blaming her for the suicide! Perhaps Asher was trying to portray how depression become so big and all-defining that it takes away perspective, thus eats away at any semblance of a normal life, but due to the quantifiable “reasons” and the lack of understanding of mental illness that they show, I doubt it.

4. I didn’t really like any of the characters.

5. I understand that Asher was trying to make the reader think about how they treat people. It’s the whole “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle” thing. That is a good message, I cannot argue with that. I simply think that the way in which it is done is distasteful.

Mental illness and suicide are important issues that fiction can deal with in a sensitive and understandable way – I think Asher sends an unrealistic and dangerous message with this book.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a particularly good example of a book that deals with these issues. Any other suggestions, please comment below!

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