Laurie Halse Anderson,
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999)

Melinda Sordino can classify every incoming and returning student at Merryweather High according to the clique to which he/she belongs. The only problem is that she doesn't belong to any of them -- not the jocks, punks, nerds, Marthas, bandgeeks -- not a single one. She used to, but not any more. Not after what she did.

What she did was call the cops to bust up a party at the end of summer. Not out of spite or stupidity, though that's what everyone thinks. They don't know the real reason, and most of them really don't want to know. Even if they did, Melinda couldn't tell them. Even if she wanted to.

Rape is not a word that falls freely from the tongue.

Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson's stunning debut novel about a young girl finding her voice, is courageous and heart-breaking. Anderson never shies away from the problems encountered by her characters, which is what makes this novel so realistic. In fact, the characterization is first-rate. As Melinda struggles with the everyday problems of high school -- homework, cafeteria lunches, pep rallies, art projects -- all compounded by the secret she can't tell, a myriad of characters offer help and hindrance. At first glance, some of these characters seem stereotyped -- the buzzcut coach/history teacher, the spacy art teacher, the bohemian English teacher -- yet one realizes early on that the reason these characters seem this way is because it's accurate. We've all, I'm sure, had at least one teacher who fits these descriptions. That's what high school is. Despite the "categories," however, these characters come alive in the ways in which they interact with Anderson's main character Melinda.

The story is told through Melinda's point of view. Her observations are candid, quick, and often acerbic. Despite her smart mouth, though, Melinda offers us glimpes into the pain she's feeling, something that Anderson never overdoes. There's no Hallmark verse or soapbox rants here -- just clear, lucid prose and a matter-of-fact attitude.

Melinda's art project -- one of the issues that frustrates and rewards her throughout the school year -- provides a beautiful controlling metaphor for her struggle, and Anderson's use of symbolic imagery does an excellent job of structuring the novel's plot and theme. These evocative scenes create tension and mood, highlighting Melinda's innocence and uncertainty about what happened to her and what she should do as a result. This combination of poetic style and captivating voice kept me hooked. Although the reader knows early on what happened, the novel remains engrossing as Melinda begins to admit to herself and others what has happened.

Speak is an eloquent first novel which marks Laurie Halse Anderson's place as an important new voice in young adult literature.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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