by Jay Asher
Listening Library, 2007
Review by Christian Perring on Dec 25th 2007
High school junior Hannah Baker recently killed herself. Now her classmate Clay Jenson gets a box full of cassette tapes that Hannah recorded for thirteen people. Each of them played a part in her decision to end it all. Clay is one of them. There are seven tapes, and each person has one side of a tape devoted to them. Clay listens to the tapes to find out what she says about him. He finds it a horrible, traumatic experience, learning about how other people treated Hannah, and worrying about what part he played in her suicide.
It turns out that as soon as she arrived in high school, and had her first kiss, the boy she kissed started spreading rumors about her. She got the reputation of a slut, and she couldn't do anything to shake it. She had other experiences of being sexually objectified, excluded by other people, and so she became increasingly isolated. By the time she got to know Clay, she was basically incapable of reaching out for help. On the occasions that she did reach out to others as she became increasingly desperate, other people failed to respond. Eventually she decides to kill herself, she makes the tapes, sends them out with instructions for them to be passed around the thirteen people, and she kills herself.
The story unfolds as Clay listens to the tapes over a 24 hour period. He starts out at home, and then he travels around town listening to the tapes on a walkman, visiting the places where the events happened. The unabridged audiobook consists of Clay's thoughts and the words of Hannah as she talks. The words of Clay and Hannah are read by Joel Johnstone and Debra Wiseman, which works well. Johnstone's performance is urgent and emotional, and Wiseman's is surprisingly calm and even ironic. Listening to the book is a gripping experience, especially if you are listening with headphones, because it helps one's identification with Clay as he listens to Hannah.
Author Jay Asher raises many issues of young women's experience, the role of reputation in high school, and the cruelty of teens. This is an unusual book that will stay with you for a long time. It highlights the seriousness of the issues it raises very effectively. Yet it requires a huge suspension of disbelief, since it is very unlikely that someone so close to suicide would remain so calm or be so organized as to make such eloquent tapes. In her planning her death and telling people what role they played in making her want to die, Hannah seems manipulative and scheming. Furthermore, Asher's depiction of her makes it seem that her treatment by her schoolmates and teachers is the full explanation of her suicide. Some boys spread lies about what she did with them, others grabbed at her body, girls were unkind, and teachers didn't help her enough. We hear very little about her family life; just that her parents had been going through major financial worries. Many people go through similar pressures without becoming clinically depressed, and certainly without killing themselves. This all makes the apparent explanation of Hannah's suicide insufficient. It may be true that if Hannah hadn't been treated badly by others, she wouldn't have killed herself, but there's enough in the story itself to suggest that the full explanation would have to say much more. Of course, in many cases where people kill themselves, we never completely understand why they did it. But there's a tension within Asher's narrative between the depiction of Hannah as very vulnerable to suffering that most other people cope with, and as an extremely articulate and resourceful person capable of planning out such an elaborate suicide note. Indeed, to some extent, Hannah seeks revenge on the people who hurt her, not through her suicide directly, but through the guilt she is able to induce with her tapes, and even the anger that the people who hear the tapes will have towards the other people she mentions. She is entitled to be angry, since she was treated badly by other people. The puzzle, however, is why if she was so capable of articulating her anger and feelings in the tapes, and able to plan out their recording and delivery to the people on them, is she not more capable to expressing herself and seeking help from those who would be sympathetic, such as her parents, teachers, counselors, or Clay himself. Her words do suggest some answers to that question, but none makes a lot of sense.
Some highly articulate, intelligent and resourceful people do kill themselves, and often it isn't clear why they think that is the best way they have to end their pain. Often people who attempt suicide and survive don't understand their own self-destructive thinking afterwards. So it is no surprise that Hannah's suicide is also mysterious. What is problematic in Thirteen Reasons Why is the impression the book gives that the explanation is transparent, and can be summed up in the actions of thirteen people.
Nevertheless, Asher's book is provocative and powerful. Clay's reaction to listening to Hannah is subtly drawn, as he reflects on what it means about his own actions and those of the people he hangs out with. Clay himself comes out as a sympathetic narrator, making it easier to get through the emotionally difficult and complex storyline. While the book isn't one that I'd recommend for people trying to make sense of suicide, it is one that should prompt useful discussion of the pressures of life in high school and the responsibilities of people to think about the effects of the way they behave towards each other.
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.