Title: Thirteen Reasons Why
Author: Jay Asher
Published: October 18th 2007
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Young Adult
Rating: 3.5 stars
You can’t stop the future.
You can’t rewind the past.
The only way to learn the secret . . . is to press play.
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers several cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker–his classmate and crush–who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.
Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.
A fortnight ago, I joined the herd of viewers who have flocked to the addictive series, 13 Reasons Why, screening on Netflix. After devouring this television series in just over a week, I felt inclined to give the book a go. I do like to make the screen version versus book comparison. I usually find the book is always far better than the screen adaptation however, I make an exception with Thirteen Reasons Why. I will admit in this case, I found the screen version superior.
Jay Asher’s 2007 book release, Thirteen Reasons Why, is the sad story of a teenager named Hannah Baker. Hannah is a high school junior, who decides to take her own life as the result of the thirteen reasons why she outlines in the unfolding story. Before she commits suicide, Hannah meticulously documents the people and the related incidents that contributed to her decision to die. She does this by collating a set of audio tapes. On the day of her death, Hannah mails the shoebox full of tapes to the first person on her tapes list. Her only stipulation being that the person who receives the tape must listen to their own tape, as well as all the others in the box, then pass the tapes on to the next person on the list. Eventually, the tapes reach a socially awkward friend of Hannah’s, Clay Jensen. Clay’s inclusion in the tapes is questionable but he becomes a sort of advocate from the grave for Hannah. His journey of working through the tapes is juxtaposed with Hannah’s inner thoughts. Clay’s struggle to understand the events and people who contributed to Hannah’s death forms the basis of this deeply sorrowful tale of rumour and gossip gone wrong.
So many thoughts come to mind when I think about this novel – teen suicide, bullying, the power of the rumour mill, sexual identity, objectification, rape – the list is endless. There is a lot that Jay Asher covers in this not especially long young adult book. Despite the short length and simplistic style of storytelling, the issues at hand were relevant, as well as heartbreaking. I think Thirteen Reasons Why is and will remain to be a controversial novel, but it does have the ability to do a few things. Firstly, I believe it is a book that is able to reach out to teens who have been touched by some of the issues highlighted above. It also acts as a reminder, working to make us to stop and rethink what we are saying or believing about others, before vicious rumours spread. In Hannah’s case, a series of seemingly lower level untruths caused so much damage. I also believe Thirteen Reasons Why succeeds in reaching out to parents, giving them some idea of the issues their children unfortunately face. In my case, this book made me reflect on my own high school experience, which was not an easy thing to do. I was the subject of bullying/gossip and I will admit to participating in the spread of rumours about fellow students. This was in the age prior to the explosion of social media, so the potential damage level was somewhat reduced. Nevertheless, the impact is still extremely hurtful to all those involved. That’s why Thirteen Reasons Why is an important piece of literature, as well as media production, as it is able to broadcast a powerful message on prevalent teen issues.
On the technical side, Asher’s style of narration is very simple and direct. I appreciated the way in which Jay Asher structured the novel, via a dual narrative frame, which switches between Hannah and Clay effectively. The device of using audio cassettes as a method to unravel the story was a different one and on the whole it played out well. I found it interesting that this book was partly inspired by the author’s trip to a museum and his experience of listening to a guided audio tour. From this experience Hannah’s audio cassette style of storytelling was born. It was interesting to discover Asher used his own high school memories to inform his narrative, especially the character of Clay Jensen. This added to the authenticity level of the storyline and high school setting. Asher was also touched by the suicide of a friend, which worked to form the character of Hannah Baker. Asher’s characters are not as well formed on the page as the series. He chooses to simply name a character and concentrate on this character’s particular incident that contributed to Hannah’s downfall. Our connection to this set of characters, who are mostly unlikable, is brief, but their actions leave a stain on your conscience.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher is a unique young adult novel. I feel it is one of those books that adults and teen alike can connect to. I hope that this book, aided by the popularity of the television series it is based on, reaches a wider audience, as it does cover important ground. Some may say Thirteen Reasons Why is controversial, due to the teen suicide content and the strong sense of revenge that comes out through Hannah’s audiotapes. Whether you agree or disagree with this novel, it will get under your skin, providing a raw but poignant commentary on suicide after it has occured.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher was published in 2007 by Penguin Books. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.