Book of the Week: Speak – Louisa Hall

This second novel by Hall arrives with some strong advance endorsements.  It received two starred reviews, the Huffington Post calls it one of “18 Brilliant Books You Won’t Want to Miss This Summer,” the New York Post deems it one of the “Best Novels to Read this Summer,” Kirkus Reviews will do a feature in July and Hall will be interviewed on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The most apt praise might come from Emily St. John Mandel, the author of the deservedly lionized Station Eleven:

Speak is that rarest of finds: a novel that doesn’t remind me of any other book I’ve ever read. A complex, nuanced, and beautifully written meditation on language, immortality, the nature of memory, the ethical problems of artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human.”

I love her comment not only because it quite economically explains the marvel of this poetic, fantastical meditation on our humanity but because Speak reminds me much of Station Eleven.

The plotting couldn’t be more different. Don’t read this is you need a straightforward narrative; in its organization it owes much more to David Mitchell than St. John Mandel. But I came away from both Speak and Station Eleven feeling that they are a poignant, elegant elegies for the present moment—for the world that is disappearing around us even as we have our heads down pecking on our smart phones and computers. (Guilty here!)

I wholeheartedly recommend this one. Along with all the advance critical praise it also has many bookseller fans and was voted an Indie Next Pick for July.

In the near future, children, mostly girls, become so attached to their babybots—lifelike, speaking dolls—that the bots are banned. After the babybots are gathered up and shipped to the desert, the children start to stutter and then to freeze. One, Gaby, is only able to communicate with MARY3, a cloud-based intelligence thirsty for her story. Through excerpts from a variety of sources, the development of artificial intelligence is revealed, from the diary of a teenage Puritan on a ship to America with her family and new husband to the letters from Alan Turing to his best friend’s mother to the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor who refuses to give his computer program the ability to remember, thus estranging him from his wife. Meanwhile, Stephen Chinn, creator of the babybots, works on his memoir from prison….Speak relies on primary-source documents to tell its story…[and] subtly weaves a thread through a temporally diverse cast of narrators. Like all good robot novels, Speak raises questions about what it means to be human as well as the meaning of giving voice to memory.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Hall’s ambitious second novel reads like a cross between the BBC show Black Mirror and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas… [She] capably weaves the stories to form a beautiful rumination on the nature of memory and the frailty of human relationships….There’s something for everyone in this novel, which moves at a fast pace but goes in depth with each character’s moving struggle to be heard. Recommended for readers of literary fiction, sf, or historical dramas.
Library Journal (starred review)

“While the title of Louisa Hall’s haunting new novel, Speak, declares its thematic intent, what it most powerfully illuminates is the human need for hearing and being heard. Hall alternates between six distinct but loosely connected story lines—spanning from the mid-17th century to the mid-21st century—to devastatingly portray the costs to the individual of not being heard and to society at large of selective, self-interested and exclusionary hearing…. Suffused with dread and loss, Speak is a gripping, deeply compassionate and hope-tinged exploration of the truth that while speaking is innately human, being heard is what connects us to humanity.”
— Matt Nixon, The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis, TN

These stories, these people as we meet them seem totally separate, having nothing in common. Why has Hall scrambled them together for us, rationed them out in rotating views of these seemingly random lives? If we stay with them and get to know them, Hall’s themes come to the fore….Hall allows us to suss out the relations between narrators, a few hints here and there, but more often little aha moments as we piece together parts of the puzzle. It’s a story of gain, of loss, of growth, of holding back, of life. Lots of lives. Our lives, too.”
— Allen Murphey, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

“You can tell that Hall is a poet – her story if full of how fragile our lives are… a somber look at our humanity. And in the end, we see the baby bots, now stored in a hanger in the desert, who are slowly ‘dying’ as their power reserves are depleted reflecting that they are the record of so many human stories, of all these characters – ‘They spoke to me and I listened. They are all in me, in the words that I speak, as long as I am still speaking.’ Isn’t this the very essence of books? The gift of humanity that books speak to us every time we open them.”
— Micheal Fraser, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH

Speak (9780062391193) by Louisa Hall. $27.99 hardcover. 7/7/15 on sale.

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