I rub two fingers, hard, over my left eyebrow. The throbbing has become intense. “It doesn’t matter,” I say.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher is built around a terrific idea for a plot. Clay Jenson, possible high school valedictorian, receives a package with no return address. Inside are seven cassette tapes. These are so archaic he has to dig out an old stereo system to play them. What he finds is the voice of classmate and ex-crush Hannah Baker who, two weeks earlier, committed suicide. The tapes are Hannah’s suicide note. Each one tells part of her story, part of the reason why she took her own life. Thirteen people are responsible; each of them has one side of one tape. The box also contains a list of names. Once one person listens to them all, the box must be sent to the next person on the list. If not, a second set of tapes will be made public.
Clay does not understand why he is on one the tapes. He cannot think of anything that he did to Hannah that would lead her to suicide. But he also cannot stop listening either. Through the night he listens. He listens and travels through town, following the stars on a map Hannah sent prior to the tapes.
The book intermixes the voice of Hannah with the thoughts of Clay. Hannah’s story is compelling. Each tape builds on the previous one. The story begins with Justin, Hannah’s first kiss. Hannah dreams what it will be like; in a playground Justin will call to her, and she will slide down a long slide and into his arms. She is even able to make this dream really happen by asking Justin to meet her in the park after school. Her first kiss is wonderful, but the next day she finds Justin has told his friends that much more than a kiss took place. Hannah, new to the school, cannot escape the rumors–her reputation is cemented. The events that follow snowball around this first betrayal; Hannah’s isolation increases, and no one sees it well enough or does enough about it to prevent her eventual suicide.
I read the book in one night just as the narrator tells it in one night, but a colleague of mine found the book much easier to put down. What any reader will do depends on their reaction to the structure of the book. Hannah’s voice and Clay’s reaction to her story are intermingled throughout the novel; most of the pages contain each. There are a few breaks when we only get Clay’s story but very few points where we just hear Hannah’s voice unencumbered without Clay’s account of what he is doing while he listens. Clay is the more reliable narrator but his story is not as compelling. Hannah becomes more problematic as her story goes on. She definately has her reasons, but she does not see that there are people reaching out to her, there are people she could have gone to for help. Towards the end of her story both Clay and the reader begin to lose some patience with Hannah.
Some readers may also begin to lose patience with the novel’s structure. Whether or not you come to enjoy the intermixing of voices or to find it as a bit gimmicky will determine how much you enjoy the book. What the book does best is show the long term consequences of our actions. Justin starts a rumor about Hannah but until he gets his turn with the tapes he is probably unaware of just how far reaching his lies were. This message is one many students and many adults could benefit from hearing. I think Thirteen Reasons Why is one book every high school library should carry. It’s one of those books that should not be pushed on readers but left in plain sight where they are sure to find it. Find it they will.
This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008. I’ve been slowly moving all of my old reviews and the better general posts over to this new site.
In the years since I wrote this review I’ve come to the conclusion that no one is to blame for Hannah’s suicide in the sense we usually think of when we think of blame. Many people face far worse situations without ever attempting to end their life. Suicide should be seen as an aspect of mental illness. If we are to blame for it in any sense, it’s because we do not take mental illness seriously enough to screen for it regularly the same way we do for so many other things. Depression is treatable. We should see it as an illness and treat it as such, not assign blame for it. End of sermon.
I don’t recall exactly, but I do think this same overall point is made by the narrator in 13 Reasons Why.