Sunday 24 October 2010

Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher

I'll be honest, I didn't want to read this book, but there was something about it that pulled me in against my will. I couldn't tell you what that "something" was. Not the cover in all its greyness, and I felt very uncomfortable about the story premise: a suicide note recorded on thirteen sides of cassette tapes and posted to the people indirectly responsible for the girl's death. It seemed unspeakably cruel. And yet part of me, a morbidly curious twinge in my mind wanted to know. It must have been the cassette idea, the thirteen different sides to the story, that struck me as original and intriguing, but I recoiled somewhat from the subject matter and resisted reading this book.

Obviously, I didn't resist forever, as proven by the existance of this blog post. I was encouraged to read Thirteen Reasons Why after seeing several other reviewers reassuring their readers that this book was worthwhile.

After Hold Still, Thirteen Reasons Why was the second book I read this month that contained a teenage suicide and its effect on those left behind, but this time the book concentrated on the events that drove Hannah to take her life. The events seem small enough at first: a few words, a rumour, and some of the people involved protest, "Surely she didn't do this because of that!" But through her tapes, Hannah demonstrates how small events trigger reactions the instigators couldn't forsee, and how they chip away at her: her trust in people, her sense of security, her self-worth and even her innermost thoughts. By the end of the book, I dare anyone to say that Hannah's reasons are petty and insignificant!

There are two narrators of this book, by necessity: Hannah, in her recorded messages, and her classmate Clay, who hears them and responds to them. At first I found this a little distracting and found it difficult to follow the rapid switching between voices, and for a while I wished that we could just hear Hannah's side of the story (while simultaneously feeling disgusted with myself for being so nosy about such a dark subject. But through Clay, the reader is given someone else to identify with, and we feel an extra layer of suspense, wondering what is coming next and where he fits into this story. As Clay listens to the tapes on a stolen borrowed Walkman, he visits the locations of some of Hannah's traumatic experiences. Seeing the places through two different sets of eyes gives an extra layer of realism to the story. And Hannah's story challenges Clay to think of how he relates to others around him, and how he can learn from his mistakes regarding Hannah.

My first impression of the story was that it was cruel, and at first I could not shake this off. Hannah's voice in the first few tapes has a thin veneer of cheerfulness over a lot of anger and bitterness. The chirpy tones at the beginning are all the harsher due to the knowledge of her intentions at the time of recording. It really feels like this is her revenge: to make her tormentors live forever with the knowledge of what they've done. As the book progresses, and the incidents become not just one-offs but part of a bigger snowball effect, you sense her despair and it seems more like a warning: we can't know how our actions will affect others, what is going on beneath the surface.

Despite in one respect being an easy read, Thirteen Reasons Why is an uncomfortable book, and it took me a while to shake off the feelings of guilt as if I was a voyeur into someone's - even a fictional character' - misery. However, it is extremely thought-provoking and informative. The book demonstrates through an incident in a Peer Communications class that depression and suicide are still taboo subjects, and where a subject is not spoken about, then it cannot be acted upon. Thirteen Reasons Why gives information on the signs to look out for, which tragically went unobserved in Hannah's case.

One of those Really Important Books.

Now for a BBC moment:
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this book, you can contact the Samaritans (UK and Republic of Ireland) details here.
If you live outside the UK and Ireland, you can find details of helplines for your country through the Befrienders' website here.


  1. i agree on all your points - what a fantastic and thoughtful review! It is an important book and I too found it a bit hard to connect at the beginning. I gave it 4 stars too


  2. The premise of Thirteen Reasons Why is a bit cruel. I found it hard to connect to Hannah for a long, long time (I think I only really sympathised for her at the climax of the novel...). But I did like Clay.

    My feelings towards this book are really confused -- on the one hand, I think it's quite an unrealistic exploration of depression. And on the other, I think it's such a good exploration of the way tiny actions can have a ripple effect.

    I don't think I was ever *entirely* convinced, but I did quite like the read overall. And I agree with you -- it's definitely one of those Important Books :)

    Also, I agree with Nomes. This review is just fantabulous :)

  3. I'm like you...I resisted this book. It's hard for me to bring myself to read books about difficult issues. But I am very glad I read this one. "Cruel" is a good word, but I liked it nonetheless.

  4. I read this book in a day and thought it was incredible, however, I do agree with your last point - I did almost feel guilty afterwards, it was just such an intense storyline that I had to give it a while before I got into another book! Great review.


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