Following the suicide of his classmate and crush, Hannah Baker, Clay finds himself reeling but coping with this new absence in school. Then one day he comes home to find a package on his doorstep with no return address. The package holds seven tapes labeled on each side with a number up to the number 13. Mystified, he plays the first tape in the stereo and is immediately knocked off guard when he hears the voice of Hannah. She explains that each side represents one of the reasons why she decided to kill herself, and the people listening to the tapes all have one side dedicated to their impact on her life. The listeners are instructed to follow her story along with a map they had each received a few weeks earlier, then mail the tapes to the next person in the narrative. Captivated by confusion, pain, and intrigue, Clay follows the instructions, and the map, all over town in the course of one night. He learns of the disingenuous pretense that hides devastating secrets for his classmates, and though his understanding of his peers is irreversibly altered, he also discovers an opportunity to rise above the secrets, rumors, and assumptions that determine social interactions in his high school.
“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher is astonishing, insightful, and unbelievably original in such a dense young adult genre. Asher intertwines two narratives, Hannah’s tapes and Clay’s evening adventures, into one story, leaving just enough information unsaid to build an underlying suspense as the reader grows more and more invested in the events of Hannah’s life and death. By incorporating the map as part of the narrative, Asher also creates a sense of location, belonging, and movement. These are all relevant themes for the transition from adolescence into young adulthood, and add depth to the story by bringing in the element of place. The content of the novel itself is highly charged. Asher discusses suicide, alcohol, sex, and the insidious power of rumors in high school student life. He skillfully navigates issues of self-blame, victim blaming, and bystander ambivalence, challenging readers to confront their own assumptions and beliefs on these topics. Fortunately, Asher does not strand the reader with these topics and emotions. He offers resolution, both positive and negative, through the actions of the characters, and infuses the story with the possibility of redemption.
I found myself both very impressed and very annoyed with this book. After reading about the inspiration for his novel, an audio tour at an art museum, the tapes and map felt somewhat contrived. The map especially. I also felt disgruntled that a male author focused on sexual rumors as the primary contributing factor for a female character’s decision to kill herself. BUT. Annoyances aside, I am truly amazed with his presentation of challenging topics. I frequently had to stop reading to sort through my own reactions to some of the behaviors and statements from the characters. Incredibly thought-provoking and well worth the read.