Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher
Copyright 2007, Penguin Young Readers Group
Summary: When high school student Clay Jenkins receives a box in the mail containing thirteen cassette tapes recorded by his classmate Hannah, who committed suicide, he spends a bewildering and heart-breaking night crisscrossing their town, listening to Hannah’s voice recounting the events leading up to her death.
As you might recall, I picked up this book because of its place on the 2012 Banned Book list, because I am particularly drawn to controversy. I have also discovered over the past few years that I still actually quite enjoy young adult fiction. My reading tastes are fairly diverse but despite feeling for some years that I was ‘too old’ to enjoy this genre, I’m finding that there actually are some very well written books in the Young Adult category.
Thirteen Reasons Why jumps right into Clay’s story, he receives the tapes from Hannah within the first few pages. At first this bothered me, I found myself wanting a bit of background on Clay and his relationship with Hannah. But I quickly felt that the true story to be told is of course Hannah’s, and so it made sense to get right to the meat and potatoes of her telling it.
The concept here is a great one, if not a bit creepy. Clay receives the tapes with the ominous note that he must listen to them and pass them along to the next person on Hannah’s ‘list’. If any of the listeners fail to do so, an unknown third party will release the tapes publicly, embarrassing everyone whose name and stories feature on the tapes.
I felt that the author did a great job in crafting the characters and stories that Hannah recounts on each of the tapes. Not every story or character is particularly exceptional, and I found myself going back and forth between empathy for Hannah and empathy for the people she talks about in her suicide tapes. Such deeply conflicted feelings are all too familiar in our adolescent years and I think that Mr. Asher did a really fabulous job at using the stories to highlight the array of experiences that young people have, both good and very bad.
Obviously a key plot point of tension is wondering what Clay did to appear on the list. I won’t include any spoilers here, but I will note that I found the resolution of this question to be one of the weaker points of the book. It lacked a real ‘oomph’ for me, although that is not to say that I didn’t buy in to Clay’s story or wasn’t invested in his experiences with the tapes and with Hannah. I think it was just a personal taste issue on this point.
The upside of this is that the book has more than one ‘key’ question to be answered and I think this is a strong point in the story. There is not one easy answer to explain Hannah’s suicide. It makes for a touching, and somewhat frustratingly unresolved (but therefore more realistic) ending to the novel.
What I really enjoyed, talking about this book later with my best friend who also happens to be a teacher of adolescent students, is the many perspectives from which one can see the characters in this book. They are not completely likeable nor dis-likeable. Their motives and feelings have complexity which I think resonates with the reader.
Overall I found the book a very engaging read.
(photo credit: books.google.ca)