Review published on June 22, 2017.
Ten years after its original release and following its recent screening as a NetFlix series, Jay Asher’s breakthrough novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, is being republished, and it is as timely now as it was a decade ago. Indeed, for those, like me, who missed it first time around, it feels not only perfectly contemporary, despite its main plot device being centred on cassette tapes (remember those?) on which are recorded the protagonist’s story, but really vital and significant right now. In fact, it seems very much to be one of those timeless stories that will always feel relevant and crucial, particularly amongst the YA readership at which it is aimed.
At the heart of the story’s power is Asher’s hugely compelling narrative approach, in which the protagonist Hannah Baker has recently committed suicide but records thirteen messages to the thirteen people who played a role in her getting to this nadir in her life and the reader experiences those tapes, and Hannah’s voice, first-hand through the novel’s other protagonist, Clay Jensen. This medium makes Hannah’s voice all the more tangible and vivid, it really is as if she is there speaking, an experience that is imbued with incredible poignancy for knowing Hannah has committed suicide. Asher does an unparalleled job in this way of putting the reader into the listeners’ shoes, of not only expressing Hannah’s pain, anger, and desperation, but crucially of making us feel the listeners’ guilt, anguish and regret as they recognise their part in Hannah’s story and ultimately that it’s too late, there’s nothing now to be done. It’s an unsettling yet humanising position to be in.
As we hear each of Hannah’s missives to the thirteen people in her story, we see how Hannah’s downfall builds, how her world gradually unravels, the butterfly effect in action. Again, the reader has the unenviable position afforded to them through their knowledge of Hannah’s death of being able to see not only the individual pieces that affect Hannah but the sum of all of these seemingly isolated parts. We can see how each character, each incident, contributes to Hannah’s predicament and this is where the power of the novel lies, in highlighting just how ostensibly small, meaningless acts can affect a person in untold ways, and that one act may be the first that a person has to face, or one of many or actually the tip of the proverbial iceberg. That what may seem to the person who carries out the act as something insubstantial, can be something much more substantial to the person experiencing it, it may well in fact be the catalyst in a person’s life. But just as much as our action can affect a person so too can our inaction, our failure to step in, to offer a friendly ear. This book is a powerful reminder that we can never know if what we do affects someone else but that at all times we should consider our actions and look out for those who need help, before it’s too late.
Naturally, dealing with suicide is very sensitive and contentious ground and some readers may react to the way in which Asher portrays Hannah’s seemingly very organised and self-aware attitude towards it. But Asher’s novel allows important discussions to be had, and I can’t help but feel that the novel can be a vital first step in encouraging such discussions. Though there are other foibles in the book too, for me the importance of the novel’s message of greater empathy and understanding supersedes these. Overall this is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that I think will have its greatest effect on the YA readership its aimed at.
Jade Craddock 4/5
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Penguin 9780141387772 pbk Mar 2017
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