January 2006

Angela Stubbs

fiction

Speak Now by Kaylie Jones

Kaylie Jones’s novel, Speak Now, is a wild ride through the emotional highs and lows of life. Replete with chutes and small ladders, this story takes a look at the psyche under a rather large magnifying glass. Speak Now, originally published in 2003, has been reissued in paperback from Akashic Books. While Akashic Books is a fairly small press, we can expect that work published by Akashic is usually going to be something that goes above and beyond what the mainstream does when it comes to picking work that has a unique voice, among other things. Jones tells a story much like that of a soap opera with its characters resembling people and personalities we all probably are familiar with on some level. Jones's cast of characters include a high-school ex-boyfriend-turned-stalker, Holocaust survivors, drug users, alcohol abusers and battered women. All of these seem in some way to be either desperate for love, attention or sobriety and in need of cleaning out their emotional closets.

The book description says it’s a psychological thriller, but it somehow covers more ground than just that. While the novel primarily deals with drugs, alcohol and missed opportunities, it also focuses on the psychological damage adults suffer, tracing back to our childhoods. It takes three protagonists to tell the story in Speak Now. There’s Clara Sverdlow, a 30-something drug addict who spends her days working at a battered women’s shelter; Niko Kamenski, the deranged and slightly fanatical ex-boyfriend of Clara’s who has yet to face his real inner-demons; and Mark, Clara’s rehab friend-turned-husband who is a successful New York artist with issues of his own. The complex characters in Speak Now address issues that addicts must face before they can recover. This particular plot has a lot to compete with as we are also introduced to the psychological warfare being waged as the story flashes back and forth between the present and the '70s, wherein lies the deep seeded reasons for many of Clara’s issues with fear and self-loathing. We are introduced to Viktor (her father) and Anya (a Holocaust survivor) through a series of flashbacks to her past. Viktor has haunting memories of the Holocaust that cause him enormous guilt and pain. Viktor had rescued Anya in Auschwitz and she later comes to raise Clara since Clara’s mother had died during childbirth. Viktor was someone who helped work underground at the camp in Auschwitz, getting prisoners food and necessities. Yet, he couldn’t help feeling tremendous angst over his contributions to the construction of train ramps, which essentially proved to be a stopping point before hauling many Jews to their inevitable death.

None of the characters have an easy time escaping their past. Niko makes a career for himself by selling crystal meth and with the remainder of his time he obsesses about 20-year-old memories he’d made with Clara. Yes, he too was scarred by events in his childhood. Parental neglect and superfluous violence were source of his neuroses later in life, yet found the trauma he’d experienced at such a young age didn’t compare to that of Clara’s father, Viktor. Niko was comforted by the thought that there were others out there who had it far worse in life than he had. The character of Clara seems to be plagued by her father’s haunting descriptions and vivid recollections of the Holocaust not to mention the fact that she’s supposedly unable to conceive.

In the midst of the drama Jones introduces us to Mark, who essentially helps Clara make a life for herself and garner a reputation for being something other than a junkie. It’s no surprise, however, that Mark has his own share of issues: a brother who died from an overdose, an abusive father and your usual run-ins with some neighborhood punks. The couple does manage to find happiness. While Jones does make their relationship sound like something out of a romance novel, with the overuse of the sappy metaphors, she does give Clara and Mark a glimmer of hope with the arrival of a miracle baby. Even Jones seems to realize that her story had gotten just a bit too dark and depressing for Clara to be baren. Not to worry, desperation and insecurities manage to run rampant through all the uplifting parts of the novel too.

With pasts that just won’t go away and bad memories looming in the present, it’s not hard to believe that all of the characters in Speak Now have death wishes. Jones’s attempt to answer the conflicts of the past, albeit personal or historical seem to fall flat in these 307 pages. While her prose flows effortlessly throughout the novel, the depressive mood and ominous atmosphere tend to keep the story from really reaching its peak. As a somewhat desultory novel, Speak Now takes a very realistic look at historical facts and even acquire accounts of Auschwitz eyewitness testimonies on which to base the characters of Viktor and Anna.

Speak Now covers a lot of psychological ground. While I’m not sure that I would consider this particular read a thriller, it does have moments of suspense and all the elements that would make up a good nail-biting experience. However this story is one that asks too many questions. Speak Now has a multitude of topics and distractions that keeps the reader and perhaps even the writer from concentrating on one premise that would have been more cohesive.

Speak Now by Kaylie Jones
Akashic Books
ISBN: 1888451874
307 pages