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Thirteen Reasons Why

by Jay Asher

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Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
© Penguin
Penguin, June 2011

Jay Asher's debut novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, is tragically dark - I found the book both difficult to read and difficult to put down. Written for a YA audience, Thirteen Reasons Why starts at what might the end of many novels: high school student Hannah Baker has committed suicide. But before doing so, she's recorded a suicide note with 13 stories - a baker's dozen - about why she has made that decision.

Each side of the cassette tape centers on one person's interaction with Hannah. Hannah sends the tapes to the person from the first tape, with instructions for each recipient to send the tapes to the next person on the list after they've listened to them.

Listening Along to Thirteen Reasons Why
The reader follows the stories on the cassette tapes with Clay Jensen. Along with Hannah, Clay is the main narrator of the story. For most of the novel, we read what Clay is hearing on his borrowed Walkman interspersed with his comments. We get access to his thoughts, feelings, and occasionally his opinions of the people that Hannah mentions. There are moments when this tandem storytelling becomes disorienting; Hannah's taped voice is set off in italics, but it still can be easy to lose track of who is narrating.
The cassette tapes are a great devise for the novel - each side of a tape serves as a chapter, and the action on each tape builds upon the action of the prior story. In Clay's narration, we see the response of the previous characters who have listened to Hannah's tapes. (If you find this to be an overly gimmicky construction, this book is likely not for you.) We all know the conclusion of Hannah's story, so the suspense comes from wondering who will be on the next cassette tape. Why, we wonder along with Clay, was he included? He seems like a nice boy: thoughtful, studious. When we reach the cassette tape with his story, will we find that we've misjudged him?

Thirteen Reasons Why is a meditation on the negative impact of bullying, rumors, and the small cruelties of everyday life. Hannah's story serves as a reminder of the ripple effects of our actions. Small moments of casual laughter and mockery have a large impact on Hannah. As Hannah says:

"I guess that's the point of it all. No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same."
Some of the stories on the tapes are of relatively petty problems - a boy Hannah kisses starts rumors that things went much further - a reminder of how unstable Hannah must be to let these small indignities affect her. In some such moments, Hannah has enough self-awareness to step back and comment, "Then come to realize that you're making mountains out of molehills. Realize how petty you've become."

But the smaller indignities of the early cassettes, which serve as a reminder of how desperately fragile and vulnerable teenagers can be, morph into larger tragedies as the tapes continue. And each experience builds upon itself - because Hannah develops a bad reputation, people treat her differently, and because of this treatment, she loses her sense of self - causing her to be even more isolated.

Can an Adult Audience Enjoy the Book?
Although Thirteen Reasons Why is written for a teen audience, adults will also find it engrossing, although not subtle in its scope. The first half of the novel was stronger than the second, particularly the ending which I found a bit heavy-handed. As readers get to know Hannah more, and see her rebuffing people who seek to help, the cataclysmic action of sending the tape feels less entertaining, and more darkly manipulative. Still, Hannah's narration is lyrical and poignant, and Clay's reaction to hearing the tapes mimics our reaction to reading the book: We might want to stop hearing Hannah's voice, but it's difficult not to keep going, and to find out all the indignities she has experienced that led to her suicide.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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