Speak is not a traditional love story. It's not a traditional anything. It's a fractured novel by Louisa Hall told from multiple points of view by a host of interconnected characters across great distances and long stretches of time.
Although the spoken word plays an enormous role in linking these characters, their stories are told through a series of unconventional texts: the diary of a 17th century English girl named Mary who is forced into a marriage she doesn't want and a journey across the ocean she isn't ready for; the letters between a computer scientist and his estranged wife who differ over the moral implications of artificial intelligence; the prison memoirs of Stephen R. Chinn who was incarcerated for creating smart dolls called babybots that were too lifelike; the transcripts of a young girl whose only link to the outside world is the software program removed from the illegal smart dolls; and letters from Alan Turing, the celebrated World War II codebreaker and godfather of modern computing.
That's a lot to take in, but like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, another ambitious novel with an unusual structure that reaches back into the past and anticipates the future, Speak is a mesmerizing tour de force. Connecting these disparate voices is the computer program that Turing anticipates and Chinn develops that captures the lives and experiences of those who interact with it.
"These are my voices. Which of them has the right words for this movement into the desert? I sift through their sentences. They are my people, the family that raised me. I opened on them, then closed. Open, shut. I swallowed them whole. They are in me now, in every word that I speak, as long as I am still speaking."
This is the heartbreaking voice of the last remaining babybot as it is being driven into the desert with the rest of the confiscated smart dolls to be locked away from human contact.
Many love stories abound but few work out favorably: Mary's love for her dog, whom she must leave behind in England, which is felt all the more intensely because her feverish adoration serves as a renunciation of the man she does not wish to marry. Her prose style is as endearing as it is arresting, prompting the wife of a computer scientist to program an early experiment in artificial intelligence with Mary's diaries simply so that the girl's voice would live on, which it does, in Chin's babybots. These smart dolls were so irresistible that Chinn's own daughter fell in love with her doll.
"All too well, I remember passing the door to Ramona's bedroom and overhearing the gentle, melodic conversations she exchanged with her bot...The two of them never fought. They were perfect for each other."
On and on it goes, one voice speaking to another and in so doing keeping their memory alive.
Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd embarks on a similar project in her fragmented story of overlapping texts that worms its way into the subconscious and takes possession of the reader.
A young translator embarks on a project to publish a collection by the forgotten Mexican poet Gilberto Owen who moved from Mexico City to live in New York City where he brushed shoulders with the great artists of the Harlem Renaissance. In her zeal to publish her books, she begins to fantasize about seeing Owen in a subway car on a passing train:
"When there was once again darkness outside the window, I saw my own blurred image on the glass. But it wasn't my face; it was my face superimposed on his—as if his reflection had been stamped onto the glass and now I was reflected inside that double trapped on my carriage window."
The translator's fantasies, however, may be couched inside the narrative of a young mother in Mexico City who suspects her husband is having an affair. To lure her husband back, she leaves teasing clues of her suspicions in the form of erotic tales from her life as a young woman working as a translator in New York.
The storylines work as strands in a double helix, endlessly coiling around each other and leaving the reader guessing what is truth and what is fantasy. Faces in the Crowd, Luiselli's fictional novelist tells us, is "A horizontal novel, told vertically. A novel that has to be told from the outside in order to be read from within."