Jay Asher’s young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why focuses on the important topic of teenage suicide, and how a young person may be led to it. While the writing is effective in demonstrating how a person’s actions may affect another in ways that they could never have imagined, reading this novel made me feel a little strange, almost as if it left a slightly sour taste in my mouth upon finishing it. Not in that the topic of suicide makes me uncomfortable like it does some people, but that there may have been ways to make the whole thing have more of an impact? The tone was a little more bitter than I thought it would be? I’m not sure. In any case, here is specifically what the story is about:
Thirteen Reasons Why starts with a young boy named Clay receiving a series of cassette tapes anonymously in the mail. As he listens to them, he finds that they are from one of his classmates, Hannah, who recently committed suicide, making a list of thirteen people/incidents that influenced her decision to kill herself either directly or indirectly. After listening to all of the tapes, the recipient is asked to then send them along to the person who follows them on the list. If the person does not listen and send them along, Hannah claims that someone watching will release another set of the tapes to the general public. Clay listens to Hannah’s story of old boyfriends, fake friends, sexual assault, peeping-toms, car accidents, and people who don’t care enough to reach out, only to fear where he will end up on the list, as all he ever did was have a crush on this girl who is now gone. At the end of it all, Clay is among those on Hannah’s tapes, but does not fall into the same category of the rest as being one of those who snowballed the negative aspects of her life; it is as though his inclusion is because he almost helped her out of her pain, yet didn’t reach out quite enough, which, really, is what nobody did. Nobody saw the signs that she needed help, and even the smallest comments became big weights upon Hannah in the end. But is she blaming these people on her list for her suicide? In a way, maybe, but also not; it’s really hard to say.
There is a sense of relief almost that comes with having the “innocent” Clay be the narrator, as it isn’t hard to start feeling for him and liking the character after being in his head following these tapes for so long; it would be devastating to know that he hurt Hannah in some way. But at the same time, it could have been ever more powerful to have been inside someone’s head who did have a more direct hand in her downfall, as maybe you could see how people could become affected with guilt after hearing Hannah’s words, or it would make a bigger statement in regards to how people may not realize how they are affecting people with their actions. I don’t know, but there was a bit of a fear I felt reading that maybe the seemingly sweet Clay did do something horrible after all. But then hearing that he didn’t in the end sort of made the whole thing too easy, and it got slightly tiring hearing about his crush on her over and over when there was nothing to be done at this point in his life. And a statement like that coming out of me makes me wonder if maybe I’m too cynical or pragmatic or not emotional enough for something like this.
What the book is very successful in doing, however, is highlighting an important message to young people in that you may not realize how you are influencing others: we may not know everything going on in a persons life, so the tiniest statements can hurt someone in a way we never even realized. And if someone looks like they need help or is showing strange signs, maybe we should reach out, like Clay is prompted to do at the end of the novel with another girl he knows. I think that that, overall, is what Hannah was trying to convey in her tapes, which is a seemingly simple message, but is still unfortunately being lost on a lot of people today.
And yet… there is still something that irks me about the Jay Asher’s novel, and that nagging thing is most easily seen in the threat of the second set of tapes. Without this threat, yes, maybe those on Hannah’s list wouldn’t have listened or sent them along for fear that everyone will now know what they have done. But with this fear comes almost a sense guilt and with that guilt, blaming. Hannah repeatedly says that she is not strictly blaming people for her suicide, but I still felt a lot of bitterness when reading it, which made me wonder about the presentation of the whole thing. It’s hard to explain, but something made me feel not quite right about the way Hannah went about her confessionary tapes. This unnerving sense I felt can specifically be seen in regards to one girl, Jessica, who had received the tapes before Clay who is then later recalled to having been raped at a party which Hannah witnessed; she claims that Jessica’s life may have been ruined by this, and yet she feels not harm in compounding on top of this by sending Jessica these tapes which detail how Jessica had a hand in Hannah’s decision to commit suicide. This compiling or “snowballing” of incidents and feelings is what led Hannah to her act in the first place, and yet she is somewhat performing a similar deed to this girl on her list (maybe not in the same way, mind you) even though Hannah is more aware of Jessica’s life than she was of Hannah’s, so I got some mixed messages at that point. A lot of these negative feelings are personal, however, so I don’t know if anyone else who has read this feels differently.
In the end, Thirteen Reasons Why was a book that I read quite quickly as I wanted to know what happened to Hannah just as much as Clay did by the end. And while it had some strong messages in regards to young people, the tone and words, which strained to be poetically beautiful at some points left me feeling a little conflicted. That’s not to say that it wasn’t good to read through once, I just don’t think this book would be something I would pick up and read again; I’d say it would probably be better received and have more of an impact on those in the target young adult demographic, which kind of goes without saying.
[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]