Speak – Louisa Hall

Emotional intimacy, and the relationships that define us, are the themes of Louisa Hall‘s profound and insightful new novel Speak (Orbit, review copy through NetGalley).

Speak is a braided narrative, following several stories set in different time periods:

  • the diaries of Mary Bradford, emigrating to the New World in the 17th century.
  • the correspondence of Alan Turing as he seeks to create an artificial intelligence.
  • the letters of the Dettmans, an early AI pioneer and his wife.
  • the memoirs of Stephen Chinn, imprisoned for creating ‘babybots’ – dolls with a highly advanced AI that have triggered a strange syndrome in children that leaves them locked in their bodies, unable to move or communicate.
  • transcripts of conversations between a child, Gaby White, and Mary3, a highly developed AI.
  • one of the banned babybots.

Through each strand of the narrative we are forced to ask ourselves about the important relationships in our lives, and the closeness we have with those around us.  Mary Bradford treasures the deep bond and unconditional love she shared with her pet dog, feeling at best ambivalent about her new husband.  Turing forms a strange, confessional relationship through correspondence with the mother of a schoolfriend who died as a child.  Through the Dettmans we see the misconceptions we form about one another, even those we are closest to.  The bonds of their marriage start to fray once emotional intimacy is shared elsewhere.  Stephen Chinn discovers the secret of creating instant connections with others, but finds those relationships ultimately soulless and unrewarding.  The AIs he creates become a substitute for ‘real’ friends, isolating a generation of children from one another and their families.

There are parallels with contemporary internet culture.  The bonds we forge online can be profound ones.  Protected by a veneer of relative anonymity and physical distance from one another, we often feel comfortable sharing more of ourselves, and more deeply, than we might otherwise choose to do in face to face relationships.  We choose what faces we present to the world, and rarely more so than in the virtual world.

As technology develops Speak shows us that it becomes increasingly difficult to determine which relationships are more ‘real’ than any other.  Connections between people fragment, leaving them ever more isolated from one another, but paradoxically more dependent on a level of emotional intimacy previously difficult to achieve.

Speak is a profound meditation on how we relate to one another, and the authenticity of our relationships.

Goodreads rating: 5*.

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