Thursday, February 11, 2010

Book Review - Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

I read this book on the strength of Claire Hennessy's review. The format and the premise intrigued me, although I suspected it was going to be a character piece, made or broken by the voices.

And although the voices in the novel are well done and didn't disappoint, in the end it was the format and the premise that made the book for me.

Clay Jensen receives a package in what he would call the mail and I would call the post, two weeks after his classmate, Hannah Baker, killed herself. The package contains seven audio tapes, 13 sides in all, and instructions to listen to them all to find out why Hannah did it, then send the package on to the next person who is mentioned on the tapes. So if Clay received the package, he must be one of the reasons Hannah killed herself. . . And if he doesn't listen to the tapes and forward them, Hannah has made arrangements for them to be released to the whole town.

Clay then does what any sensible person would do (and if our Clay is anything, he's sensible): he freaks out and drops everything to listen to the tapes in spite of his terror.

Luckily, or this would be a very short book :)

The book alternates between Hannah's voice and Clay's. Hannah's monologue is rendered in italics. Clay's narration (he does a lot of walking around as he listens) and his responses are in plain type. I found that the switch between voices was often too abrupt - I would be halfway through a paragraph thinking 'Wow, Hannah has a crush on a girl, that's a little unexpected. . .' and then I'd realise I'd been reading Clay for half a page. This isn't a fault with Asher's writing, though - he has created two unique and distinct voices. I blame either my reading speed (I read fast, and I re-read everything) or the layout, as there is no extra line break when it switches. Although the voices alternate so much that a line break between each switch would have added up to a lot of extra pages.

Claire's review (which y'awl might like to read) mentions that a lot of emphasis is placed on the actions that influenced Hannah rather than the fact that ultimately, suicide was her decision. I agree with that, but Asher is getting very deep into the head of one girl, one girl whose perspective is naturally a touch skewed, so I would expect her to be externalising most of the blame. And at one point, albeit fleetingly, she does concede that she may have a predisposition towards suicidal feelings - she says that her thoughts turned that way during any period of strife. That said, there is at least one person on the list, probably two, whom I think Hannah was terribly unfair to single out. She walked away from a lot of people and blamed them for not following her for long enough.

The character of Clay is particularly interesting, because we have a protagonist who we see doing virtually nothing. Apart from Hannah's voice on the tapes, he interacts with maybe three people. He walks. He orders a milkshake. He takes buses. Ho hum. You know how every agent blog you've ever read about characterisation says that your character needs to be active, to make decisions with consequences, rather than sit by passively and be acted upon? Well, Asher turns this on its head and he does it well.

Clay is three-dimensional and well-drawn - although sketched might be a better word as Asher manages to make very little detail convey a lot. For instance, at one point Hannah remarks (on the tapes, where no one can answer you back) that Clay never went to parties. His response? He has to study at weekends. Most of his classes have tests on Monday. It's not his fault.

That says so much about the character. The 'It's not my fault' is interesting - he could just decide not to study. Or not to study after a certain time in the evening. Or to make up the time during the week before. But no, it's 'not his fault' and he has no choice. And of course it wouldn't cross his mind to just not study.

The form was the thing that made this book, though. I don't know whether it is more accurate to call it a dialogue where one participant can't hear the other, or a monologue with ineffectual responses interspersed throughout.

There was one line that really stood out of me, from Hannah: "You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective. When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything. . . affects everything."

And in spite of what some reviewers have said, I'm not sure there's any message that we can take away from this book. Except one of total helplessness - you have no idea how your actions may affect others. And in many ways, this is a book about helplessness. But it also a book about decisions and consequences, and I think Hannah's decision was made before the last few people crossed her path.

Verdict: A good read, a page-turner, and an interesting study in rule-breaking. Very challenging themes and *very* dark for a YA - but it would be, given that Hannah was dead to begin with so there's no hope of a rescue.


  1. Hi

    Up to the last of your paragraph it didn't occur to me that the target audience were YA! It's certainly very dark and quite disturbing (person already dead speaking from the grave - imagine the horror of hearing someone's voice that you know has died addressing you).

    I really like this review. You've got the themes and plot explained as well as your considered opinion but you didn't give the game away!

    Take care

  2. I didn't realize it was a YA until the last paragraph either. I was and still am intrigued.
    Great review.

  3. Yeah, I forgot it was YA most of the time I was reading it - I bought it from the teen section so I knew before I started that YA was the target age group, but after I put it down, about a day later I caught myself thinking 'Wow, that was for teens? Brave teens. . .'

    It doesn't spoil anything to say that the book ends with no redemptions because obviously, Hannah dies, and we know that from the blurb. It's handled very interestingly though.

  4. I love your point about Clay as passive character - sure, he decides to listen to the tapes, and to walk around, and all the rest, but he really doesn't do much. And yet it works - it's a really nice example of something where the physical journey is very small and ordinary but the emotional journey is huge, and the fact that so much of it is inside Clay's head isn't unbearable.

  5. Yeah, it is a pretty good example of how a writer can depart from the tradition rules provided it's done well. Even though he's reactive rather than active, it still works.

    I'm not trying it anytime soon, though. . .


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