Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of Thirteen Reasons Why. It’s been adapted into a hugely popular Netflix series, and that is how I came across the story first. My sister recommended it to me, and then had to put up with me blowing up her WhatsApp while I binged it… and then was kind enough to loan me the original book. Thanks sis!

Content warning: Suicide/bullying/violence

First things, then – the book and the TV adaptation are pretty close. Some plot points have been changed for Netflix – for example, as season two has just been confirmed, and the book ends pretty definitively around with the end of season one, there’s obviously some untied threads in the show that aren’t in the book. Having seen/read both, though – yeah, they’re pretty close, and they’re both really good. As this is a book blog, though, I’ll focus on the book.

Absorbing, and provocative, it didn’t feel like shock for the sake of shock value, as can often be the case with a) books written for young people and b) books about suicide. In case you have been under that rock, I’ll summarise the basic premise:

Clay is a high school student. He’s a pretty good kid – quiet, smart, studies well, on track for college – and one day he receives a surprise package in the mail. His pleased interest is short lived,  however, as it turns out that the package contains cassette tapes recorded by a girl in his class, Hannah Baker, who had ended her own life a few weeks ago. There are twelve cassettes, each side numbered from 1-13, and the first tape explains that each number is for one person on Hannah’s list. The list of names, Hannah explains, is the list of reasons why she killed herself.

We read along with Clay as he listens and reacts to the tapes – wondering, as he is, what he has done to end up on the list. Surely he doesn’t belong there? He finds out who the others are, the things that happened and the way Hannah felt that she never shared with anyone, as the pieces start to fit together.

Without giving away the rest of the story, then, I found this book fascinating, from a literary perspective. It was interesting to get to know Hannah second-hand, as it were – we never actually meet her, we only get to know her as a character through the carefully chosen words on her tapes, and through Clay’s memories of her. Then, the medium of cassettes is also a choice that says a lot – the book’s target audience of young people, post-millennial, are unlikely to remember cassettes as an available medium, which adds yet another distancing effect to the character of Hannah. Although, having said that, on the back of the book we are directed to a blog where you can hear the tapes for yourself – which makes the experience slightly more immediate and mutes the distancing effect. Personally, I didn’t listen – I wrote about my experience of multi-media reading with Sing You Home and Off The Page, and in this case I preferred to read rather than listen. I’d be interested if any readers out there have listened to the tapes, though – what did you think?

Literary devices aside, then, the subject matter itself calls for a reaction. Suicide is such a taboo – it’s not discussed, either in the book or in real life… which I guess is the author’s point. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in the UK, and I’m reminded of a campaign a few years back whose main message was talk about it – I can’t remember the exact tagline, but the takeaway point was to encourage people to talk about mental health. It’s something Hannah didn’t do, until it was too late, and we as readers are left to feel that acutely, along with Clay. The subject is treated sensitively, for all that, and by having two narrative voices, the author is able to cover many viewpoints, meaning that no one character is left to tell the reader what the truth is. Hannah is not deified – there were points in both the book and the show where I didn’t like her very much – but neither is she vilified. Similarly, the people who were the subjects of the tapes are not portrayed as wronged victims, or as evil heartless monsters (for the most part); everyone is portrayed as flawed and human, in all their shades of grey. The subject matter of suicide is treated the same – the author walks the line between mental health and the ending of one’s life being very much that person’s choice, and looking at how we can affect the mental health of those around us (for good or bad) and take responsibility for how we treat each other.

I’m not a fan of spoilers, but in this case I think it’s important to mention that the book ends on a note of hope. Definitely worth a read.

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