This Young Adult novel by Jay Asher was written in 2007 and tells the story of a high school girl named Hannah who is a victim of bullying at school, sinks into depression and hopelessness, and ends up killing herself. After her suicide, her friend and classmate Clay finds recordings that describe thirteen reasons why she decided to kill herself, and that he is one of those reasons. She explains why he is one of those thirteen reasons, and he listens to the tapes to find out why she included him.
Although there are similarities between the book and the Netflix series, the basic plot is the same.
It’s a very popular book that got rave reviews, and tackles the sensitive and powerful subjects of bullying and teen suicide. Besides being bold enough to take on these topics, Asher does it in a way that’s gripping and realistic. The story told from Clay’s point of view is honest and sounds like the character is just sitting down across from you in a restaurant booth spilling it all out the best he knows how.
The book switches back and forth from Clay’s point of view to Hannah’s as he listens to the tapes. Her words versus the listeners.
Hannah is not introduced in a sad, depressed voice. Her voice “sounds” angry, resentful, bitter—as one would when dictating accusations to those who hurt, betrayed, and bullied her. She taunts her supposed tormentors and doesn’t let them off in the slightest, like a vengeful ghost torturing from the grave. True to most teenage girls, she remembers each slur and hurt as if it were a dagger in her heart.
The odd part is, Hannah remembers interactions, friendships, and emotions involving her thirteen targets with much more detail than they do, which is sad, but a clever device Asher uses in his storytelling to show authenticity.
One difference between the Netflix series and the book is that the series tries to make the characters more palatable or likable, which is what you would want to do in a series, but it comes off as trying too hard. Instead, Asher created more realistic characters in his book that made you not like them so much. This is refreshing, and it’s good that the author didn’t cop out as some writers do. Yes, it’s okay to sympathize with a villain. Every Batman and Joker fan knows that. But this book is more about realism that convention.
The suicide in the book seems to crash into the characters unexpectedly, leaving the recipients of the tapes dumbfounded. It’s confusing, Hannah is confusing, and the reactions of the listeners of the tapes are confused. This is the mark of a good writer. Asher doesn’t tidy up things as he writes. He just lets the story unfold in all of its teenage angst glory, which is the way teenage life really is sometimes—especially suicide--confusing.
Another thing I like about Asher’s writing is the way he allows his characters to be normal, rude, inconsiderate, and human—the way we all are at times. He doesn’t demand that the reader feel guilty for the characters who were inconsiderate or dismissive of Hannah. He allows the reader to see that what seems like a normal life with mundane interactions can carry unintended consequences. Hannah wants her listeners to feel guilty for being flawed and thoughtless—for just being the negligent teenagers they were.
On the other hand, it does make the reader think and be aware that even the smallest thing they may so or do could add to the torment that the recipient is already going through. Without meaning to, we could potentially add the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Which is sad that we should need to be so aware of each word we say, that what we say could absolutely push some over the edge of suicide—while having no effect on others.
Some critics say that this book can put ideas of suicide into a teenager’s mind, but more often than not, a book is not as persuasive as the teenager’s personal life. If anything, this book can be a suicide prevention tool. In a way, it’s reminiscent of Queen’s song “Don’t Try Suicide”, because “nobody gives a damn.” Sometimes I think that’s what one of the themes of this book is. A teen can feel all the angst he or she wants, can feel so devastated and suicidal, but in the end, the teen makes the choice, and does the larger world really care? Or care enough? A teen’s family and friends may care, but does it change anything? It can’t bring the person back or undo the damage that’s been done by anyone.
We can hear about a teen’s suicide on the news and feel really bad for a while, and then we more often than not just go on with our lives. Sooner or later, the suicide fades into the background as everyone gets on with their lives. This sounds jaded and cruel, but this sort of apathetic attitude is what contributed to Hannah ending her own life.
If anything, Asher’s book wakes us up to the indifference of humanity, the unnerving drama of high school life, the good/bad/indifferent choices made by humanity each and every day.
The must-have in any good book is a transformative journey experienced by the characters. This is certainly true for Hannah, who goes from a troubled teen to a dead character. Clay also morphs from a clueless guy into a more aware and sensitive person. He will never be the same after listening to Hannah’s tapes. It shouldn’t take a classmate’s suicide to do this, but in this case, it does.
Another criticism is that it glamorizes suicide. I think that could only be determined in the mind of the reader. Sometimes the hype of a book can sensationalize the subject matter, but I think glamorizing suicide is going a little too far. It calls attention to it, shows us all of the ugliness and pain surrounding it, but doesn’t glorify it. It’s a cautionary tale wrapped in reality. It’s true that mass bereavement can take over following an unexpected death or suicide in a high school. Principals and teachers often debate about whether to hold a memorial service at an assembly at school, as it sometimes prolongs the grief process. But others find it a cathartic release for students. It’s a subjective subject, but overall, one suicide doesn’t prompt others in a chain reaction, and a story about suicide doesn’t romanticize it.
During the book, I kept wishing things had turned out differently for Hannah. She was a smart girl, but she didn’t seem to recognize that high school would end one day, that others were going through similar circumstances as she, and she could come out on the other side with the right kind of support.
But that wasn’t this kind of story. She didn’t have anyone to lean on or tell her things would be okay, and that high school would be a distant memory one day, that old hurts could turn into something positive with the right help. The experts will tell you that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but Hannah didn’t seem to know this or care.
Asher chose not to write such a Pollyannish book, and for that, he can be applauded. He takes the road less traveled, and his book stands out for it.
Maybe that’s why the Netflix series deviates from the book. It just wouldn’t play as well to an audience that’s used to realistic plotlines and convenient endings.
Some suicidal teenagers want to make those around them feel bad when they’re gone, make them regret the choices they made, the things they said or didn’t say, and that’s exactly how Clay reacts., and Hannah doesn’t care that she won’t really be around to glory in it.
Other critics complain that Hannah is really a bad person/character. But that’s what’s so good about Asher’s writing. If he draws a character so convincingly human that he has readers HATING her, then he’s done his job as a writer. Yes, Hannah has made some really messed-up choices, but would you really want to read about cookie-cutter teens who always make the right choices? This isn’t that book.
I can understand the criticism. One minute you feel for her, and the next you’re thinking that you could never be a friend of hers, stick up for her or care that she’s in pain. It’s these conflicting feelings that make for an interesting read. Yes, Hannah is self-absorbed, emotional, mean, and flawed, just like real teenagers.
This is why her suicide is so impactful. You’ve met a real person in Hannah. You may not have liked her or some of the things she said or did, but you met her, and if affects you strongly when she’s gone.
I recommend that you read this book with an open mind, and not take it as a teenage suicide prevention manual.