Anyone who came of age in the 1960s will be able to read SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR and readily identify characters who they have encountered in their own lives. There's the woman in the floor-length skirt who was always reading Mother Earth News and growing her own food, even in the middle of the city; the black journalism student who was always hanging out with the white kids, attaching some sort of unspoken faux liberal legitimacy to their mutual association; the trust-fund Rastafarians who are with us even to this day; and then there are the people on the fringes, the ones who always had the dope from unknown sources, who were popular but questionable, with just a hint of the scent of danger wafting about them. All of them are present in Pam Lewis's debut novel.
If one were to engage in a word association test and used the term "the '60s," I believe that the two top responses would be "free love" and "anti-war." The catalyst for SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR is, indirectly, the former of those two. Carole Mason is a sixteen-year-old senior, a newly minted student at a private, prestigious high school in New York City. Carole is overweight (though a better way to describe her would be to say that her height is too short for her weight) and she has never been kissed, a social stigma in freewheeling, freebooting 1965. She also has entered the school too late to ensconce herself in an established clique and, accordingly, is a de facto outcast.
Enter Naomi, an anti-social wild child who teaches Carole how to smoke, shoplift and, hopefully, "score." Naomi introduces Carole to Eddie Lindbaeck, an evil knight who stands ready and willing to help Carole lose her virginity during an erstwhile skiing trip set up precisely for that purpose. The reader meets Eddie on the first page of the novel, and Lewis does a simply magnificent job of describing him through Carole's perspective. We know almost immediately, based on Carole's description of him, that he is a cad, even if Carole herself isn't aware of this. What occurs on the night of Carole's "score" will haunt her and affect her every waking moment for years to come, as well as bind her, Naomi and Eddie in an uneasy and dangerous triangle from which Carole will try, continuously and unsuccessfully, to escape.
The magnificence of Lewis's plotting here cannot be understated. Consider Carole's life to be a house, with each day a different room. Both she and the reader never know when Eddie, quietly malevolent and boiling with a barely checked rage of unknown origin, will come a-calling. Interestingly enough, Eddie only appears in a relatively few number of scenes, but he is a lurking presence behind every word in the book. As the story speeds suddenly toward its denouement, Eddie's capacity for evil becomes fully revealed, and while it is not surprising in its extent or degree, it is nonetheless shocking and riveting.
Lewis has created a haunting work that does not comfortably fit into any particular genre but that easily can be embraced by several. While SPEAK SOFTLY, SHE CAN HEAR will resonate most strongly with middle-aged baby boomers, it is a cautionary tale for the ages to which readers of all generations will relate. Recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011