Review: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Summary from www.thirteenreasonswhy.com:

Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box 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. On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out how he made the list.

Once again, I’ve chosen a book that is complicated and complex and wonderful all at the same time. I had a very hard time reading this book; this was one where I had to put it down and walk away a few times, but ultimately I can say that this is a completely absorbing read, and well worth the time if you can work your way through the subject matter. The story is told through a double narrative format – Hannah’s voice on the tape recordings is in italics, while Clay’s thoughts and actions are in regular type. At times, there are conversations between the two, and the device works. Other times, the voices are so busy giving us information that they become layered, and even confusing (hence the frequent breaks to clarify thought). However, it is the intertwined nature of the individuals that makes the story. Your heart aches for each child – and they are children, no matter what adult pursuits they may engage in – as they experience loneliness, rejection, humiliation, fear, and ultimately despair. How each chooses to deal with these emotions is what makes the story so special.

Thirteen Reasons Why

Book cover - colour edition

The topic of teen suicide is a difficult one for most people; I find it especially hard as I work in a middle school, and while Hannah and Clay and the other characters are in high school, I can all-too-clearly see parallels in my own students. As a teacher, I viewed this book through a different lens. I recognize that teens often enjoy reading books with more controversial subject matter, but this book really tore at my heart strings at times. As Clay and Hannah journey through Hanna’s past, exploring the “reasons” she gives for her choice, I found myself yelling at the characters. “That was not a reason unless you LET it be! You had an option, and you chose not to use it!” As a teacher, I put myself in Mr. Porter’s shoes, wondering what I would have said or done differently. Not a lot, I’m afraid, except I think – and hope – that I would ensure that Hannah would not leave my office when she did.

I pictured my own students reading this book and I wanted desperately to reassure someone that a person who is truly committed will decide on suicide no matter what the reason. Can individuals prevent that act from happening – absolutely. Watching for the warning signs (beautifully illustrated in the characters’ regrets), saying “hello”, being a presence for those who need it; these are all ways that we can make a positive mark on a person at risk. I love the additional materials that have popped up online for exactly this reason – Hannah’s Reasons prominently displays the suicide hotline resources a the top entry for any visitor, while the book’s own website lists a number of resources and helpful articles for students to use. At the back of the copy I read (the paperback edition), there is an absorbing interview with the author where he very clearly spells out what to look for and how to help students at risk. Every care has been taken to ensure that students understand that suicide is not the only option, and that everyone can make a difference. Still, as an adult, there was a sense of urgency within me as Hannah recounted her story. I kept waiting for someone to pay attention to what was going on – to exhibit just one of the many helpful suggestions listed in all these places, but the ultimate lack of involvement tore me apart.

Because of this, I think of this novel as the perfectly imperfect YA novel; it includes all the angst and anguish of a life gone wrong in high school, with every missed opportunity for redemption and personal triumph driving home the ill-fated nature of Hannah. It is Clay’s final act that saves this novel from plunging into melodrama – (SPOILER) that the author chose to have his “good” student Clay (so categorized by his peers) learn something from his loss and express himself in a gentle but entirely appropriate manner gives me hope for the students who read this book to do the same.