13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher (YA)

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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 returns home from school to find a strange package 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. Hannah’s voice tells him that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he’ll find out why.

Clay spends the night crisscrossing his town with Hannah as his guide. He becomes a firsthand witness to Hannah’s pain, and as he follows Hannah’s recorded words throughout his town, what he discovers changes his life forever.

I decided to read this for the first time with the adaptation beginning on Netlix this weekend. The high concept of the tapes and the ‘whodunnit’ element are the real draw here and it pulls you in quickly for a fast-paced read. I liked how there was very little preamble, with the book basically taking place over the same amount of time as it takes Clay to listen to the tapes.

The snowball effect of the unfolding narrative is somewhat negated by the fact that you know the outcome from the blurb, so it really is about filling in those gaps and asking what happened to lead to Hannah deciding to kill herself, finding out the reasons ‘why.’ Jay Asher uses some bleak humour with this throughout, Hannah correcting herself as she refers to herself in the present tense.

I found the book pushes you to question your own thoughts around suicide and mental health. I’ve definitely experienced a narrow-minded and uncompromising view towards suicide and it’s still seen as a somewhat taboo subject, which makes the subject matter itself all the more important.  Either way, there’s a lot to be said for confronting teen suicide in this way.

Where I struggled with the narrative was with the use of a dual narrative. I thought Hannah’s tapes were much more interesting than Clay’s reactionary movements around their neighbourhood and found myself skipping down through Clay’s thoughts to get to Hannah’s words. It’s worth noting that the structure resembled Paper Towns in the moving around a map device, though the latter was published after this.

I was also uncomfortable with the treatment of a secondary character in the third act. The impact of an incident on that character is ignored with the major focus on the effect it had on Hannah’s character. The victim’s point of view was pretty much glossed over which seemed odd in a story driven by the character dynamics throughout.

There’s been a lot of discussion online in the past few days over the validity or otherwise of Hannah’s reasons for killing herself. As several commentators have mentioned, each mental health scenario is different and one person cannot be judged for their reasons because of anybody else’s reasons seeming more justified. It seems a strange logic to use. Everyone suffers in different ways.

I would recommend checking out Louise Gornall @Rock_andor_roll on Twitter for more thoughts on this, from someone with more experience in mental health discourse.

The book manages to end on a quasi-positive note, as Clay learns some valuable life lessons from the tapes and from having Hannah in his life. With its pacey chapters and engaging backstory, 13 Reasons Why grabs and holds your attention and should make for a good binge as it arrives on streaming.

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