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.
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."
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.