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Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice)

 Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice)

This vow was supposed to be about making things less complicated, to stop myself from doing something stupid, to show everyone how much I dont need them. It was about me deciding that if I cant have their forgiveness or their respect, I wont give them anything. All its done is make me an easy target.

Chelsea Knot knows the social currency of gossip. Being able to wield an uncomfortable secret against someone is power, and its leverage is apparently infinite among her group of friends. And really, gossip is all that Chelsea has to offer when it comes to retaining her place on the totem pole of school popularity. Because she wouldnt be there at all if her best friend, the oh-so-popular Kristen, hadnt taken her under her charitable wing.

So when Chelsea walks in on two guys kissing at a party one night, her first thought isnt that given the horrifically homophobic attitudes of her small town, it might better to keep things quiet. Her first thought isnt that its not her place to out someone.'Its that she can use what shes seen as a way to help cement her ever-rickety place in the social hierarchy. Kristen is easily bored, so when I do get her full focus, it makes me feel like Im doing something right.shes used to people fawning all over her to get on her good side. Ive been on her good side for almost two years now, and I intend to stay there.

But Chelseas gossip has unthinkable consequences.

Theyre fucking holding hands? Shit. Warren spits into his red plastic cupbefore he nods at Joey and says, You coming?

In the attack that ensues, one of the boys ends up in hospital. Hes seriously injured.'Fortunately, Chelsea does make the right decision: she makes a report to the police about whats happened, and the two culprits behind the brutal beating are arrested. But in a small town like Chelseas, this is only the beginning.'It doesnt matter if it was the right thing to do or not. Of course she hates me. When Chelseas friendship group turns on her with astonishing bile, she decides that nothing good can come from her speaking outand so she takes a vow of silence.

In disarming her weapon of choiceher voiceChelsea finds that the power dynamics of the schoolyard shift dramatically around her. Where those who might otherwise have fallen victim to her gossiping ways tentatively reach out to her, others use her silence against her. After all, without a voice, Chelsea has no way of retaliating, of sharing her concerns, or even seeking solace in the companionship of others. As Chelseas silence stretches over days, then weeks, she begins to learn just how crucial it is to be able to have a voice:'And even just sitting there, its like Im somehow part of it, even though Im not, really. Im just an observer, she thinks at one point.

She also slowly learns that gossip isnt just about her own voice. Its something that'actually'takes away the voices of other people by speaking for them and of them. Not to mention choosing not to speak out for others. Others who so often are people who are already effectively voiceless: ethnic minorities, queer students and so on.

When it [homophobic comments] happened I did nothing. It barely even registered; it was like white noise, she thinks at one point. Sometimes I even laughed along for show. At least it wasnt being said about meAnd I thought it was okay as long as I didnt actively participate, that it was enough for me to secretly believe in my heart of hearts that there was absolutely nothing wrong with being gay even if I never dared say it out loud.

The rampant homophobia in Chelseas hometown is horrific; its something thats not even acknowledged, its so taboo. It so clearly needs to be spoken about in the school communityand indeed, one of the students sets up a queer alliance just for this reasonas its something that students are so uncomfortable with that they dont even know where to begin. Though Chelsea slowly attempts to position herself as accepting, shes often really little more than tolerant (and given her self-obsessed comments at times, probably less than tolerant). Her response to the two guys at the party kissing is indicative of her own deep-rooted homophobia, as are comments like:'Warren and Joey were totally drunk, but its one thing to joke about that stuff and another altogether to act on it. Is it really one thing to joke about beating the crap out of someone because of their sexuality?

The homophobia in the book apparently goes hand-in-hand with the misogyny and slut-shaming, which is widespread and viciousand unlike the homophobia, goes largely unquestioned. At one point Chelsea describes'packs of preteen girls in their way too slutty outfits at another (while drunk), she says:'Id be nicer to her if she dressed a little better, adding internally, It would also help if she stayed away from Brendon and didnt get her slutty germs all over him. Natalie is the kind of girl who can give you an STD from eye contact alone.

The treatment of females throughout the book is alarming, and I can only hope its pointedly exaggerated (and that the author is writing critically), because theres a serious need for not just a queer alliance in this school, but a feminist one, too. Chelseas locker is regularly defaced with terms like stupid whore and bitch. At one point in the book a character says to her,'Finally decided to keep your mouth shut, huh? He adds afterward: Hey, maybe at lunch you can come by our table and suck my dick. Then Dereks. Then everyone elses. Think you owe that much to the team after costing us our two best players, dont you?

This is a book that is positioned to be very powerful, and after an uneven beginning, it seems that it does have that potential. And yet, it seems to peter out, veering off into proms and formal dresses and a sweet and not-quite-believable romance (while yay for a love interest who isnt creepy and possessive one cant help but wonder whether a romance can truly be kindled through discussions on a whiteboard) rather than really addressing the issues or answering the questions that it seems to have set out to. I couldnt help but feel that Chelsea isnt quite self-aware enough as a character to be able to carry off this subject matter as well as another character might have, and often theres a lot of awkward expositional flailing as she tries to do so, but fails. Between this and the fairly forgettable direction the plot ends up taking, I cant quite shake the feeling that theres a missed opportunity here. Im a little torn over the star rating for this one, but given that its a book that Im still thinking about a week after reading it, its hard to deny that theres definitely something about it that resonates.

Rating: star Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice)star Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice)star Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice)blankstar Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice)blankstar Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice) (good)

With thanks to Harlequin Australia for the review copy

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 Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice) Book Review: Speechless by Hannah Harrington (on speaking out against prejudice)


  1. A great review Stephanie, I have to agree that the novel does fade into the romance which I found a bit disappointing as it raised so many issues that could have been explored more fully.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Shelleyrae! Although I really did appreciate the fact that Sam was a nice guy love interestthere are far too few of them in YA!I think the book probably would have been stronger without the romance thread. Chelseas new friendship with Asha is quite lovely, and I think the friendship element alone could really have carried a lot of this while also helping to look critically at the issues addressed.

      I might see if I can get in touch with the author about the misogyny and see whether it was a critical approach.

  2. This sounds interesting and potentially potent. Im a little disappointed to hear it doesnt finish exploring the issues it points out. I too wonder if it was a critical approach or just throwing in the baby with the wash. . . . um, I mean throwing noodles on the wall and seeing what sticks.

    • Stephanie /

      I had a great chat with someone (unnamed to protect the innocent!) about this, and she pointed out that focusing on both feminism and homophobia might have made the book too issues oriented, which is a good point. As it is, it raises enough questions that the reader will be set to thinking about them, which is definitely a good start.

      I do think that a lot of my overall problems with the book had to do with the narrator/point of view character Chelsea. If shed been more self-aware and insightful, she might have been able to pull off a deeper exploration of these themes without coming across as sanctimonious or preachy.

  3. I was really excited to read this, its a shame it doesnt live up to its potential. Great review.

    • Stephanie /

      Do give it a go, Belletheres a lot here to like. I think the book just sets out to do a lot more than it realistically can given its style and narrative voice.

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