Fiction Reviews


(2016) Louisa Hall, Orbit, £9.99, pbk, 368pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50609-8


I winced recently at the words of a TV reporter standing on some steps in America, saying straight-faced into a microphone: “How do you solve a problem called Korea?”  If I can mine a similar corny seam then Speak might have a blurb on the back cover which says: 'There’s Something About the Marys' or perhaps 'There’s Something Wrong About Mary, all of them', but that would be banal, tacky, and trivialising what is a serious piece of work.

Speak is Louisa Hall’s second novel and totally unlike her first, The Carriage Clock which was a modern re-imagining of Jane Austen’s Persuasion set in America, something which seems slightly ironic given the recent high-profile re-imagining’s of other Austen classics by major British authors such as Val McDermid (Northanger Abbey), Joanne Trollope (Sense and Sensibility) and Alexander McCall Smith (Emma). One of the characters in The Carriage Clock is a failed tennis player and perhaps Hall drew on her experiences as a professional squash player before she became a writer to help flesh-out that character.  Speak is different from The Carriage Clock in structure and storytelling style but it is not totally futuristic given that some of the narrative voices which tell the tale are set as far back as the 17th century, while we have imaginary correspondence from a real-life historical figure spread between the 1920s to the 1950s, and more recent correspondence in the latter half of the 20th century before moving into the near future for two distinct strands. But, there is another voice we hear before these stories, foreshadowing the inter-linked tales that follow but it’s “power if fading” and it is on the way to a hanger in Texas to endure a long, slow death along with thousands of others of its kind, but what is it, and can it really die if it has never truly been alive? Is it human? And has it become more human than we are, because we have become more machine-like, shunning those closest to us and our natural surroundings.  What is life, what is intelligence, what is memory, what is interaction? These are some of the big themesSpeak examines.

But what about Mary? Well Mary Prime is a young woman called Mary Bradford, barely a girl, really, but with her hand already given away in marriage to a pock-marked hero that she does not care anything for.  She only cares for her beloved sheepdog, with the slightly jarring (for its time) name of Ralph, which is going to be left behind in England as she and her family get ready to set sail to a new life in America.  She does not want this life and she does not want this future and she doesn’t want to leave Ralph behind.  She has secrets and hopes and desires and writes them all down in her diary, while her parents express disquiet about the way she interacts more easily with her dog than people, a theme that will be echoed throughout the book.

Cut to the 1960s and the Dettman’s – Karl and Ruth – a married Jewish couple who fled from the Nazis but are now drifting apart.  Karl is a computer scientist (and based on real-life scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, creator of the conversational programme known as 'Eliza') while his wife is a historian and she has edited Mary Bradford’s diaries.  She is feeding Mary’s 'voice' and memories into the MARY computer programme Karl has created, all the time begging him to give MARY more memory which he refuses to do. And so they become further and further estranged, almost managing to communicate through the letters he writes to her, expressing his side of things, while she writes letters that give her very different viewpoint.

It would be wrong to suggest that these two stories involving Mary Prime and MARY are separate and distinct and that Hall has weaved a novel together through a series of novellas with a framing opening and closing narrative.  For Karl is inspired by the work of code breaker, and the father of AI, Alan Turing, who was trying to imprint a human’s personality into a machine, and the particular personality he has in mind is revealed in a series of socially, awkward, heartbreaking letters that Turing sends to the mother of his best school friend, Christopher Morcom, between the 1930s and the 1950s.

Enough of the past, because Mary’s diaries and Turing’s work and the MARY programme lead to the creation of the Baby Bots by Stephen Chinn who now languishes in jail in 2045, in a world where the environment is grubbed, and society isn’t far behind.  In Jail, Chinn recounts the story of his undoing, from being a Turing-like genius, an unlikely babe-magnet, and creator of the latest MARY algorithm which allows him to make the first of the Baby Bots as a companion for his little girl.  Soon his creations are the best friends of little girls everywhere and possibly the cause of a paralysing illness that afflicts them once the dolls are removed by the Government.  One such little girl is Gaby, whom we meet in the last of the major narrative strands, but only at a distance in the haunting transcripts of conversations between her and her Baby Bot used at Chinn’s trial.

With its multiple strands, Speak can obviously be compared to the work of David Mitchell, and perhaps more recently Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself where the main story of two research scientists is interrupted by scenes set in the past and the future adding up to a complete whole: similarly, Speakis very much a complete novel.

Given her two totally different works to date, I am reminded of the novels of the novelist Adam Thorpe, and of one of my favourite writers, William Kotzwinkle, whose books are very different from each other.  I am sure whatever Hall does next will be worth looking out for, but what it will be about, and how it will be told, is anyone’s guess, but in the meantime Speak is very much recommended.

Ian Hunter

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