Author: Jay Asher
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 288
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
“You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret…… is to press play.
Clay Jensen doesn’t want anything to do with the tapes Hannah Baker made. Hannah is dead. Her secrets should be buried with her.
Then Hannah’s voice tells Clay that his name is on her tapes – and that he is, in some way, responsible for her death.
All through the night, Clay keeps listening. He follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his small town…
…. And what he discovers changes his life forever.”
Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why was a runaway success when it hit the bookstands a decade ago. Everybody thought that its magic has waned but when it was adapted into a Netflix series (one of the producers no less than Selena Gomez herself), interest in the novel has steadily increased again. I am not one for bandwagons but my curiosity was piqued due to the book’s sensitive subject – suicide and mental health. The moment I saw a copy of the book, I bought it and made it part of my 2018 Top 20 Reading List.
To be honest, I was a little apprehensive on reading the book. The subject is something that is very close to my heart and I fear that the book won’t do it justice. But after calming down my nerves, I took on the challenge. Overall, my reaction to the book is mixed.
The narrative began when Clay Jensen, a high school student, received a mysterious package containing seven cassette tapes. He was initially baffled by the archaic package but when he began playing the tapes, he was in for a very big surprise. He never thought he’d be able to listen to that voice again – the voice of Hannah Baker, a classmate who, a couple of weeks before took her own life. Nobody knew why, nobody understood.
“You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective. When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything. . . affects everything.” ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
The tapes were addressed to thirteen individuals whom Hannah named as the primary reasons behind her decision to take her own life. After her death, the tapes were sent out to these thirteen individuals – the symbolical Thirteen Reasons Why. The tapes are meant to be passed on to the next individual named on the tapes. Over the course of a few hours, Clay plays one tape after the other and he learns the ugly truth that ultimately pushed Hannah beyond the brink.
As expected, Thirteen Reasons Why reeked of the same elements that abound the ordinary young adult fiction. Jay Asher did not deviate greatly from the young adult fiction paradigm. I appreciated how Asher avoided literary curveballs in presenting the circumstances surrounding Hannah Baker’s life and death. His straightforward story-telling suited the story well. This is probably one of the very few books that I appreciated because of its straightforwardness. This is surprising for me because of how averse I am with young adult fiction.
The centrifugal points of the story, of course, are suicide and mental health. There is a stigma surrounding suicide, depression and mental health in general. Mental health is a ubiquitous phenomena yet it is appalling how greatly misunderstood it is. Moreover, it is something that doesn’t only affect young adult but even accomplished adults. Famous personalities Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and Robin Williams are just some of the few individuals who have committed suicide due to a slew of mental health related issues such as depression. In spite of their untimely deaths, mental health remains a largely debated subject as many of the sufferers choose to live in the dark.
I remember one Facebook friend posting something about the inability of today’s society to agree on the causes of depression – one side of the spectrum argues that it is due to the instability of hormones while the other side argues that depression arises from circumstances surrounding the one suffering from depression. Although depression was never mentioned once in the story, it is palpable how the story revolved around the latter argument.
In Thirteen Reasons Why, several aspects of a teenager’s life were portrayed. Asher also did not sugarcoat in depicting the miscellany of events than typically occur during this phase of one’s life, including the darker ones. The book dealt on several sensitive subjects like sexual assault, stalking and downright voyeurism. Other subjects tackled in the story include infringement on intellectual properties, bullying and slut-shaming. All of these events factored in in Hannah’s decision to commit suicide.
The story’s message is very simple and profound – every action that we do and every word we say affects the people around us. We may not notice it but our smallest actions have the tendency to hurt, to cause pain. A simple joke which is not offensive to one can be offensive to another. Like a tiny drop on a calm water, its effects can ripple to infinities beyond. The story reminds us to always be kind and be very mindful of our actions and words because they are powerful. In a few words, we can create a world of kindness or a world of chaos. Our words and actions can have constructive and destructive – it is ultimately our choice which side it will be.
“Sometimes we have thoughts that even we don’t understand. Thoughts that aren’t even true—that aren’t really how we feel—but they’re running through our heads anyway because they’re interesting to think about.” ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
Jay Asher did superb job writing the narrative. However, it was a lamentable reading experience nevertheless. As one digs through the narrative, the manner Asher addressed the issues on mental health and suicide is lacking. Yes, one can relate with Hannah’s story and experiences but Asher failed to point out the more important implications of the subject he wrote about. The story revolved around Hannah – the story begins and ends with her. Asher created a lot of complications and tensions in the story but most of them did not make the story move forward.
Hannah’s presence governed the dynamics of Thirteen Reasons Why. In the clichéd manner in which suicide has been dealt with in literature, Hannah’s omnipresence is nauseating. I don’t feel like the story is romanticizing suicide as some would claim but on the downside, it failed to address the issue. As one of the tape recipients has said, Hannah was basically just looking for reasons or people she could pin the blame to. Moreover, there is a touch of superficiality about Hannah. Her presence can be felt but she is more of a caricature – she is purely a recording but I barely felt her substantiation.
But whether the book addressed the issue on hand or not, it is without a doubt that the book did succeed in one aspect – opening the general public’s consciousness on suicide. It was neither a total nor an epic fail because it sparked debate again on this very sensitive subject. I was so looking forward to reading this book because I hoped that it would be an enlightening experience, that I would make a connection with it. The subject is not only something that interests me but because it is something that is close to my heart. Unfortunately, the book fell below my expectations. The book held so much promise but then again it failed to hit the mark.
“When you try rescuing someone and discover they can’t be reached, why would you ever throw that back in their face?” ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
Recommended for avid readers of the young adult genre, for those who like reading narratives with dual perspective, mature readers who can deal with dark and sensitive subjects, readers who love reading high school love stories and for the hopeless romantics.
Not recommended for readers who are looking to truly understand the nature of mental health, those who are looking for a light read, those who are going through a difficult phase, those who are having second thoughts about life, and those who are devoutly religious.
About the Author
Jay Asher was born on September 30, 1975 in Arcadia, California.
While studying at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he decided to pursue a serious career in writing. It was because of this that he left during his senior year. He has since written several picture books and middle school novels. However, his greatest work to date is the 2007 young adult novel, Thirteen Reasons Why. It became a sensation and has earned him several accolades and awards. His other works include The Future of Us (2011, co-written with Carolyn Mackler) and What Light.
He is married to Joan Marie Asher and they have a son.
To everyone who are having second thoughts, please consult with experts or talk to someone. To those who who know someone going through a rough patch, the best way to deal with them is just to listen, without any prejudice.