Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: Thirteen Reasons Why

How can a book with a narrator who killed herself actually save lives? Jay Asher’s debut novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, points out more than a baker’s dozen of answers to that.

The story: Clay Jensen receives audiotapes that contain the reasons why Hannah Baker committed suicide. As much as possible he doesn’t want anything to do with the tapes, but the records say that anyone who receives the package is—in one way or another—responsible for her death. Confused but compelled to know what he’s done to contribute to Hannah’s ticket to an early grave, Clay listens to the tapes the whole night. As Hannah strips the enigma surrounding her past, Clay begins to see fragments of his present and future that can change his life forever.

Thirteen’s premise is not really a fleshy one. A suicide of a girl who had a hard time in high school? Everyone must have heard of similar stories, especially those about bullying. But Asher’s overall execution of the quotidian high school life is commendably genuine, in a sense that he has created two very distinct mouthpieces that gave sheer weightiness to the storyline. The simplicity of the writing helps in conveying the tale’s brutal honesty, and the intensity of the emotions woven into the threads of suspense-filled events is spot-on. No wonder why everyone I know who read this devoured it only in one sitting.

I must admit it’s almost painful to read. So rare it is to learn a suicide story from the perspective of the person who committed it, and this one’s done beautifully. It felt like jumping back to the past and hearing the sorrows of a girl before she dies, and there’s nothing you can do to save her because you’re following the rulebook of the Grandfather Paradox…you know how her story will end.

Two points of view are used: Clay’s and Hannah’s. I liked Clay’s very much, because the way he reacts to Hannah’s stories is so…sincere. He liked Hannah a lot, but he’s initially creeped out by the thought of listening to a dead girl’s voice—especially one that’s putting him in a blame list. He’s a stew of emotions inside: scared, confused, lonely, angry, hurt. Sometimes there’s a bit of humor in there, but mostly he’s haunted by the ghosts of his “what-ifs”. Between the transcripts of Hannah’s tales we see what Clay feels and does, and often these moments are the ones that pull hard at the heart strings. I guess this is because the way he reacts reflects how the reader would react if they’re the ones to listen firsthand to the audiotapes. What I find amusing about Clay, though, is that unlike most of “nice guys” in contemporary literature, he is aware and even acknowledges that he is Mr. Nice Guy. XD

Hannah’s voice is mordant and eerie. She uncovers the snowball of events that led to the decision to check herself out, and she does this one cassette tape at a time. The anecdotes reveal well-molded characters that might be familiar with the readers who have been to high school, people who contributed to Hannah’s accumulation of emotional bruises. One of my concerns on the tales is reflected in Clay’s common thought on a few of the records: how unfair it is to the people who don’t know the effect they can have on someone like Hannah. Sure, there are a lot of users/backbiters/gossipmongers/maniacs on the blame list, but there are some who are just being their goofy/foolish selves (in some way, we are all foolish in high school). And then there are those who are shy or who just couldn’t figure out how they could help Hannah because the walls she built around herself were too tall to jump over now.

I like how Clay is being the voice of what the readers may think. If only Hannah reached out, if only she wasn’t too vague, if only she asked for help, if only she’s vocal enough. Being weak is not an option in a kind of world we have today, but people who are as fragile as Hannah tend to break at the slightest of pressure. Clay realizes all that, and seeing how such history can repeat itself, he decides to rewrite it with an ink of hope. For a dark story, the ending was shining with a new beginning.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a very engrossing read. The message of reaching out, of people’s interconnectedness, of how silver linings can engulf the darkness of the clouds—it’s all strewn across the story, and it will be an indelible mark in your mind and heart.
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