This is not the kind of book I normally read, but the other day my daughter mentioned the book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. She told me it was a very popular book among teens, that it dealt with the issue of teen suicide, and that it was soon to make its way to the big screen with Disney star Selena Gomez playing the role of Hannah. With this in mind, I listened to my Kindle read me the book over a 6-hour period while driving on a recent trip out of state.
Thirteen Reasons Why is a pretty engrossing read (or, in my case, listen). It begins with a young man receiving a box of seven audio tapes on which he finds the voice of his friend Hannah. This is jarring to him because Hannah had recently taken her own life. The tapes contain Hannah’s explanation of her own suicide and names thirteen individuals who played a part in her decision to take her own life. Whoever received the tapes was to listen to all of them (and, if they so chose, to travel to the various spots on the enclosed map to better understand where the various episodes she describes on the tapes happened). The tapes were then to be sent to the next person included in her story. In all, then, the tapes were to be listened to by all thirteen people involved in Hannah’s story. To quell the threat of somebody simply destroying the tapes, Hannah reveals at the beginning of her story that an unknown person held a second set of tapes and would release them in a public manner if the tapes did not make their full rotation.
My initial interest in hearing this story was based on (a) its seeming popularity among teens, (b) it’s coming greater popularity once the movie is released and (c) the subject matter of suicide, especially in a teen book. I was particularly interested to know whether or not the book in any way encouraged or romanticized suicide. Furthermore, I was curious to know how the book would handle the issues of life, death and ultimate meaning (questions inevitably intertwined with the issue of suicide).
It is easy to see why teens would find this book interesting. It’s written in a very engaging manner. The unusual format of the story is actually very effective in building anticipation, tension and curiosity in the reader. Asher uses this format to great effect and I found it to be a very intriguing method of writing.
The book contains some objectionable material. There is some profanity, which is to be expected in a secular novel dealing with teenagers. There is some sexual material, but I do want to add that these sections are not needlessly gratuitous and they do indeed stand at the core of the story. I say this because a large part of Hannah’s story involves the unwanted sexual advances, comments, and gossip of which she finds herself a victim.
I thought back to my own high school days while listening to this novel. Who can deny that gossip about “loose girls” floats through school hallways with frequency and with devastating effects. Hannah’s story powerfully reminds the reader of the devastating power of lies and gossip. It is a gripping tale of the kind of viciousness one encounters in high school. Girls in particular seem to be the special objects of these kinds of whisper campaigns, and the book did make me wince as I tried to remember if I had joined in whispering or laughing at some salacious story involving some girl in school.
One of the poignant points of the story is just how powerful our actions are. High school is a brutal place, again, maybe especially for girls. Hannah’s tale, as it unfolds, reveals through her vivid description of the various episodes leading up to her desperate and tragic action just how deeply words and actions cut. It reminds the reader that playing fast and loose with somebody’s reputation or moral character is a terrible thing to do and can have catastrophic consequences.
Without giving the story away, I was struck by Asher’s insertion into the story of an element of moral ambiguity and conflict on Hannah’s own part. I will go so far as to mention Hannah’s own inactivity in the face of a crime perpetrated upon another. In the story, Hannah is cognizant of and crushed by her own inactivity, and it contributes in its own way to her own crumbling life. Even so, it keeps the story from becoming overly-simplistic in its categories and it very effectively leaves the reader with a great sense of conflict over and tragic irony in Hannah herself.
In all, though, it must be said that Asher has created a profoundly effective tool for introspection and awareness. I daresay that nobody will read this book dispassionately. It does indeed accomplish the task of creating awareness as far as our interpersonal relationships go.
That being said, I listened to the story with a growing sense of unease. By the time it was over, I understood the source of my unease: namely, the almost complete absence of any element of transcendence. I do not mean by this that I was shocked by the absence of the gospel (disappointed, of course, but not shocked – the book is not and never claimed to be a religious work). But one does wonder at the absence of mere transcendence or any evidence of a real grappling with transcendence on the part of Hannah in the story. She never seems to ask what comes after death, what the greater meaning of life is, or of any awareness of transcendence at all. She never seems remotely concerned with the question of what lies beyond, or of the greater questions of meaning, truth, or God. There is a brief, tongue-in-cheek reference to religion on her part, but that is it.
Again, as the work is a secular work, I shall resist the rather obvious point that I wish Hannah had given thought to the truthfulness of the gospel itself. Many people live and die with no concern over the gospel. That is tragic but, again, not surprising. But I do find the lack of any interaction on Hannah’s part with questions of transcendence itself to be frankly unbelievable, especially on the part of a character that evidences real thoughtfulness. Yes, I am fully aware of the fact that the particular circumstances that would lead a teenager to contemplate suicide can grow so large that they would eclipse transendent reality, but I find the absence of this element in a character so possessing of introspection and awareness (and the story reveals that Hannah is fully possessing of both) to be a major flaw.
The book is a mixed bag. Regardless, it is a story that is well-known and is about to be even more well-known. It might just provide a wonderful discussion opportunity with your teenage kids.