Review: Teen Fiction

Book Review: Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

There are thirteen reasons why your friend committed suicide. You are one of them.

This is the tagline. Indeed, within the first ten pages, the main character finds a shoebox on his doorstep that contains cassette tapes, and from the first tape hears the voice of a dead girl declare, “There are thirteen reasons why I did this. If you are listening to this, then you are one of them.”

Yes: this is a book about suicide. And personally, I thought that it was one of the best novels dealing with death for young adults that I’ve read in several years.

The girl on the tapes is Hannah Baker. Our main character listening to the tapes is Clay Jensen. This book portrays two stories unfolding side-by-side: Hannah relating events that lead to her decision to take her own life, and Clay listening to them and grieving two weeks after the fact.

When I started reading this, the tone is so utterly light that I entirely expected Hannah’s suicide attempt to turn out to be just that: an attempt. The, “she-wasn’t-dead-after-all-and-now-we-can-fix-everything-because-the-world-is-made-up-of-puppies-and-rainbows” approach to suicide. But it’s no spoiler to tell you that this is not the case. It professes to be a book about suicide, and that’s exactly what it is. No take-backs. No happy endings.

But the fact that it tells Hannah’s story and Clay’s reactions in parallel is what makes this book more than just a depressing story about a person to whom a series of unfortunate events occurred, culminating in a decision to end it all. Clay is still very much alive, and his presence allows this book to turn its reader’s attention to something beyond depression. It allows this book to have a resounding, explicit message to its readers without sounding pretentious.

I’m going to briefly draw a comparison to a book about death that I did not enjoy. This book is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and I realize that it has a huge fanbase, that people adore this book who are on their deathbeds, that to a lot of people, it provides the comfort they need when confronting possible death. Maybe I’ll do a review of that book someday; but I don’t dislike it from cover to cover. No: it was certainly well-written, and had aspects that I liked. My problem with it was that death was too clean, the main character too flawless, her grief too fleeting… It felt hollow, to me, like it had been written by a man who understands that the death of a dearly beloved person is sad, and that one’s own impending death is scary, but doesn’t quite understand those emotions beyond this superficial overview, or that it would be just as sad (if not more so) if these events happened to a person with actual flaws.

Such was certainly not the case for Asher. Hannah describes a series of thirteen events that led to her suicide. The thing is, however, that not one of these events on their own would have been cause for what she drove herself to do: probably not even a combination of any two or three. It was the sequence of events, the culmination of ills that at last drove her out of her mind and into a pill bottle.

Now, having made the comparison with a book in which I call the characters too flawless, I have to point out that Clay’s “reason” is the least cruel. In fact, he is mostly on the tapes so that Hannah can explain to him why she did what she did, and why their pre-relationship never really went anywhere. Clay’s worst crime was seeing Hannah break down, and leaving her when she yelled at him. In a lot of other books, this might be a negative point. But in a book this explicitly depressing, watching Hannah crumble page after page, the fact of being able to relate to Clay becomes the lifeline that keeps the story going.

Hannah is no martyr, and Clay is not perfect. There were several points throughout this book where I wondered at the sheer naivete of their actions. With the exception of one character who is an all-round douchebag (but sadly, such people do exist in real life) and another who went too far in the name of self-gratification (sadly, these exist too), every character who wounded Hannah was simply too self-involved to realize what their actions were doing to her.

Meanwhile, Clay is there in the background all the time, pining after Hannah from afar. And this, in the end, is perhaps the biggest tragedy of this book: that despite the presence of someone such as Clay, who watched her, wanted to know her and would have dearly wanted her to live, his inability to tell her so in as many words was as potent as if he had cut the last rope that held Hannah to life.

Hannah is not an insert-yourself-here vessel for angsty teenagers (I’m sure there are some that do nevertheless, but my point stands), because she is not merely misunderstood. It is also a true tragedy: the reader is led to understand that if only Clay had reached out to her, if only she had told Clay what was in her mind, if only she had tried to pull her parents out of their busy lives, if only her guidance counselor had taken her more seriously, her ending may have been avoided. The biggest culprit, you see, was inaction on the part of several people, including herself. Her end was avoidable, and yet it came anyway, brought about by the girl herself who felt that she had no way left to live; no other option but to make it stop.

And yet, the book endeavors not to merely be a tragedy. It seeks the empathy of its readers, to recognize how destructive self-involvement and inaction can truly be, and calls to them to turn around: look at and listen to the people around them, and how their own actions are affecting those people.

I will say that it is, relatively speaking, a simplistic look at the psyche of a suicidal person. People have gone through more than Hannah did and lived, as have others gone through less and committed suicide in despair. Some of the events that occur are so over-the-top, so utterly despicable to the core that at times, the world looks ugly and cruel. Yet, in the end, it isn’t. We see this through Clay, and the world that is still turning all around him even as he grieves for Hannah.

Asher, in the afterword, commented that he once received a note from a reader who said that this book made her “want to be awesome.” I concur. Though it is sad, though it is at its essence a tragedy, and though perhaps this would not normally be your cup of tea, I would highly recommend reading it once. It is a book about death, but written for the living, as a beacon that calls, “There’s still hope! Don’t give up!” It was ambitious on Asher’s part; but for me, it succeeded.

Thank you for reading this review; feel free to check out others from the master list.

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