Book Review - Speak to Me

In her 2017 debut, How to be Human, Paula Cocozza’s female protagonist was obsessed with a fox. In Speak to Me, it’s a more identifiable fixation – a case full of letters. Susan, a librarian, is fed up with her husband, Kurt, staring at his smartphone, which she nicknames Wendy. Their marriage, she concludes, has become “a modern version of a long-distance relationship”. Her twin boys also ignore her – preferring gaming to bedtime chats. In despair, Susan wrecks Kurt’s phone (three times) and, spiralling downwards, starts to make visits to their former home in London.

Susan’s unmooring began three years earlier when the family moved to an unfinished suburban estate in Berkshire. Initially there’s humour in the descriptions of domestic claustrophobia: The house designs are “named after dukedoms” and they’ve bought the “prestigious” Beaufort model: a soulless affair with “soft-close kitchen cupboards” and a “vast three-door closet in the hall”.

A tattered case containing the love letters from her first boyfriend, Antony, has gone missing and Susan is determined to find it. She realises it’s “a touchstone” from her past. “My guilt and shame were in that case and… locked inside the smallest box, some sort of hope.” As Susan becomes increasingly unhinged she starts documenting her sense of loss. She recalls meeting Antony at school, aged 16, and how his interest gave her confidence. Later, when studying at different universities, Antony would send enigmatic love letters to her – emerald ink on lilac paper. Despite hinting that he had other girlfriends, Susan stuck with him and his infrequent visits.

It’s a slow burn of a novel – and a story told in flashbacks has a distancing effect – but Cocozza subverts our expectations in the shattering final third when Susan meets Antony, now a touring actor. Speak to Me is a searing account of a woman yearning for connection who finds salvation in words. Cocozza writes perceptively about the breakdown of a marriage, acute loneliness, obsessive love, and ends on a surprising note of hope. 

Originally published by The Observer