Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Kathryn Hughes on a book that's a bestseller in America's high schools
High-school student Clay Jensen returns home one day to find a package waiting for him. Inside nestle
seven cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, a classmate who committed suicide a fortnight earlier.
Hannah's instructions are clear: Clay is to listen to the tapes to find out how he fits into the puzzle
of her death, then he is to mail them to the next person on a list of 13 names. There are 13 reasons
why Hannah killed herself, and Clay is one of them.
This is a tremendous premise, even if it is preposterous. Hannah's cool voice and impeccable planning
do not seem like the actions of a teen who is bent on self-destruction. Still, if you can get past this
initial contrivance, you are in for a dizzying ride of suspense and revelation. Hannah is a master
storyteller who unfolds her narrative with teasing economy. Not until the very end of the tapes do
we get her full account of how the stresses of high-school life in Middle America have become unbearable.
There are no huge disclosures here, no murder plots or incest dramas. Instead, Hannah recounts a sequence
of unhappy, small incidents of the type which might mark any young woman's adolescence. Mostly these
are to do with low-level bullying, some of it sexual. A boy Hannah kissed in the park spreads the rumour
that she is easy. Her new girlfriends – she has only just started at the school – are not the supportive
sisters that she might have hoped for. When she sends signals that she is about to kill herself, students
and staff fail to do much about it.
This, it turns out, is the reason that Clay, who seems a decent enough boy, is on Hannah's list.
He has long had a crush on her, but allowed social awkwardness to keep him disengaged from the girl's
growing distress. While nastier boys have violated Hannah's trust in herself and others, Clay's crime
is one of omission. He has simply failed to step in and stop the rot.
This first book by Jay Asher is remarkable for its technical elegance in weaving words from Hannah's
tapes with Clay's reactions and memories. Occasionally there are stumbles in meaning and tone, but the
suspense is wound tight as we wait to find out who is next on Hannah's hit list. Less successful
altogether is the characterisation of the girl herself. Hannah comes across not so much as a young
soul in distress as a vengeful harpy who takes pleasure in naming and shaming the people whom she
blames for her end. This moral confusion is heightened when we discover that Hannah herself has been
guilty of some lapses of good citizenship.
But perhaps this is to read Thirteen Reasons Why too rigorously. It is not a moral polemic but a clever
sleight of hand. What it manages to do very effectively is ask its teen readers to think carefully about
how being part of a herd can mean trampling weaker, peripheral members. The book has been a huge hit
in the United States, with young readers hailing it as both a warning and a manual for how to get
through the high-school jungle. Young British readers will inevitably have to spend some time mapping
the landscape of the book on to their own parish interests. Chances are, though, that the references
to diners, driving and cheerleaders will add an exotic tang rather than detract from a story whose
message is universal.
Source: The Guardian, Saturday 23 January 2010