"…When you hold people up for ridicule, you have to take responsibility when other people act on it.” ~ p.53
This sums up the entire premise of Thirteen Reasons Why, a story about the suicide of a high school girl, Hannah Baker. Hannah explains her own suicide through a series of cassette tapes that she recorded prior to her death. In the tapes, she recounts the people and events that led her to her decision. She even instructs the listener on a guided tour of places where some of these events took place. The tapes are delivered to a list of people one at a time. Each person on the list must listen to the entire collection before passing them on anonymously to the next person mentioned in the tapes. Each of these people has a connection to Hannah’s story.
When Clay Jensen receives these tapes, he’s dumbfounded and horrified. He and Hannah used to be classmates and could’ve potentially been more. He’s instantly sickened when he realizes that he’s received these tapes because of something he could’ve unknowingly done to her. He fights his initial reaction to shut off the tapes because he acknowledges that as painful as it is, he wants to know the truth of what happened to her.
He spends the night roaming around the town they live in, Walkman in hand and her voice on those tapes as his tour guide, describing events that took place. Through dual narrative we get to know Hannah through her voice and Clay through his reactions to everything he hears. All it took was one false rumor when Hannah was a freshman to set things in motion. Each person mentioned in the tapes was responsible for either perpetuating that rumor or following through on it.
Clay obediently listens to Hannah’s recollections though he’s hesitant to learn what kind of a role he played in her death. His confusion is compounded by the fact that he genuinely liked her and had wanted to get closer to her when she was alive. Rumors and his lack of confidence kept him at a distance. As he listens to the tapes, he realizes that for the first time, he’s truly listening to her. And it aches when he thinks of the many little things he could’ve done differently or stopped from happening that could’ve have possibly led to a different outcome.
This is a somber read. Suicide is a heavy subject matter to cover and I think Clay’s narrative adds some perspective to the entire story. He feels genuine empathy towards Hannah but also dismay and anger at her for giving up.
Asher doesn’t provide any commentary on suicide but rather a glimpse into how things can transpire and as he puts it, “snowball”. I thought he did a remarkable job navigating through Hannah’s pain and the effect her death had on some of the people on her list, especially Clay. It has to be gut wrenching to be called out on your behavior, especially by a dead person implicating you as a factor in their death.
This poignant story is a quiet reminder that sometimes a genuine smile, greeting or a kind word really does make all the difference in the world. And rather than having a completely gloomy ending, Clay offers us a little bit of hope.