Review: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

13 reasons why3 Review: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

13 Reasons Why opens with main character Clay receiving a box of cassette tapes. It seems innocuous enough, although it does bring to mind scenes from German novel The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, as well as the connotations associated with chain letters. However, Clay soon finds out that what is on the tapes is far from innocent.

The tapes have been sent through an as-yet anonymous chain of Clay's classmates, having originated with Hannah Baker, a young girl and, as we find out, an almost-girlfriend of Clay's, who has recently committed suicide. The tapes detail, over 13 sides, the people, and their actions, who have contributed to Hannah's death.

It's a chilling premise, and one that author Jay Asher says was inspired by a visit to a museum, where he was given an audio device that would tell the story of each of the exhibits. The result was, of course, a fragmented series of notes and stories that were nevertheless interrelated, and it is this mood that characterises 13 Reasons Why. In the book, Hannah has recorded a tape for each of the individuals she sees as culpable, but because they are narrated as though for that person's ears only, the story is painfully fragmented and inchoate to begin with.

We watch as Clay feverishly plays through the tapes, desperately trying to figure out the role he has played in Hannah's death. It's almost frustrating to find out that Hannah holds him up in high regard, and as largely blame free. Similarly, Clay spends relatively little time reflecting on whether this is truly the case, and as he considers the instances where he could have stepped in, he puts any blame back on Hannah, thinking that he would have helped if he had known'an approach that is itself problematic.

13 Reasons Why is a challenging examination of agency and avoidance. Hannah picks out situations where others intervened or acted in ways that fundamentally affected her. Some feel far more significant than others, but the effect is one of a snowball, with the cumulative effect of these actions resulting in Hannah's final cry for help, which goes unheeded. What is most challenging, though, as well as ultimately supremely frustrating, is that Hannah appears to be looking for a way out from the outset. She assigns the others agency, but at the same time sees herself as having no agency of her own, describing her death as the result of their actions, and therefore unavoidable. She puts herself in the hands of others, relying on them to see the signs that she is struggling, and then terrorising them with blame for her death when they do not. While I don't want to imply that those Hannah accuses of atrocious behaviour are innocent, for in many cases they're far from it, there are instances where she seems to be deliberately misreading a situation to enhance her own suffering, and these sections are difficult to read.

While undeniably a challenging and painful read, the book teeters on the precipice of melodrama, and unfortunately often stumbles, resulting in scenes that don't quite ring true, particularly given that they're meant to be the spoken diaries of a teenage girl. The book does, however, offer a thoughtful examination of the snowball effect of others' behaviour, and how even the smallest action'or inaction'can have a profound effect on someone's life, particularly when they have opened themselves to being influenced in such a way. It addresses issues of agency and vulnerability, of cruelly plotted revenge, and of risk avoidance achieved through passing on blame and fault to unwitting participants. It's a gruelling read, and one that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, but certainly one that you'll find yourself wanting to discuss and reflect upon once you're done.

 Review: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

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 Review: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

 Review: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Forthcoming reviews: The Shadow of Malabron by Thomas Wharton'(young adult); Demon of the Air by Simon Levack (mystery)

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