Mapping a tragedy

13 Reasons Why Book Review

Brandi Flores, Staff Writer

When someone commits suicide, their friends and family often wonder what they could’ve done differently. The novel, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, explores this tragic situation by creating a character named Hannah, who has recorded a set of tapes, each revealing a different reason why she decided to cut her life short. Asher addresses issues such as bullying and suicide in an emotionally evocative, original way.

This was Asher’s first novel, and after its release in October of 2007, it became increasingly popular with readers and critics alike. It eventually hit the number one slot on the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for over two years while receiving positive reviews. For obvious reasons, Asher was pleased with the reception, but he also wanted to draw attention to the issue of suicide for reasons closer to his heart; he became inspired to create Hannah’s character after having a discussion with a relative who attempted suicide in high school.

The story of Thirteen Reasons Why is told from the perspective of high school student Clay Jensen and begins after he receives a mysterious package. Inside, he finds audio cassette tapes. Once he plays the first tape, he recognizes the voice of Hannah Baker, his classmate who committed suicide a few weeks earlier. Through these recordings, Hannah shares her reasons for ending her life and changes Clay’s life forever.

The alternating narrative between Clay and Hannah is one of the most interesting parts of the story. Clay and Hannah were polar opposites of each other. Clay is a quiet, reserved person who rarely draws anyone’s attention, though he had always hoped to attract Hannah’s. Hannah was a charismatic, complex individual who everyone seemed determined to talk about, often in an unflattering way. Little by little, the tapes reveal more about both characters while serving as a plot device while Clay follows Hannah’s instructions to visit places and confront people who played a role in her eventual demise. The tapes literally map out Hannah’s path to suicide, and with each step, Clay begins to see more of this horrible trajectory through his classmate’s eyes.

Due to intriguing characters and a unique storyline, relevant issues like teen bullying and suicide become personalized and visceral. Today, there are thousands of documented teen suicides every year and constant efforts to raise awareness around this issue. Yet, Thirteen Reasons succeeds where these cold statistics often fail. It gives suicide a name, a face and an unfolding story we can relate to. It also illustrates how teens don’t typically become suicidal due to one tragic event. More often than not, they are worn down by constant harassment and humiliation over time. Asher shows how even seemingly small transgressions can enormously impact another person’s life.

Thirteen Reasons is engaging, emotional and realistic, but may be too disturbing for some readers, especially if they’ve been personally affected by bullying, depression or suicide. Asher explicitly taps into these experiences, but that might simply be too painful for certain teens. Otherwise, I would highly recommend it to anyone who is drawn to dramatic mysteries or novels that explore social problems. If you enjoy this book, you can move onto the Netflix series or try Asher’s most recent novel, What Light.