Wednesday, 20 October 2010
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Hannah Baker committed suicide. She opted out of life and now she wants people to know why. Shortly after her death, Clay receives a package of audio tapes made by Hannah before her death detailing the 13 reasons why she no longer wants to live. These 13 reasons translate into 13 people and Hannah makes it clear that if any one of them doesn’t pass the package along after her death, a second set of the tapes will surface publicly exposing them to their peers, and in some cases, the law.
Clay has no idea why he should be one of the reasons, but curiosity and a certain respect for Hannah drive him to listen to the tapes. As he does, the cruelty of his fellow students is revealed to him and a picture of what Hannah’s life was like began to form. It all began with a simple lie that only teenagers could take seriously. But they did and it changed Hannah’s life. That lie caused more and more little events to happen which snowballed into one great burden which Hannah could no longer carry and when even her teacher failed to understand and help, Hannah ended her life, but left the tapes as a way of getting back at the life and people that so disappointed her.
I’ve seen some reviews which paint Hannah as a whiny, weak person who should have had more courage, and in a sense, this is true. A stronger person would have been able to deal with the situation and would probably have never allowed things to go as far as they did. However, the book is about more than just her failings. It’s about social interaction and the failure of society as a whole. Humans are supposed to differentiate themselves from animals by their compassion, sympathy and capacity to support those who need help. In Hannah’s case, not only did they not help her, they didn’t even bother to get to know her before they started wearing her down. They didn’t know what kind of a person she was, whether she was good or bad, whether she was kind or unkind, whether she could take the kind of punishment they were handing out. In the end, you find yourself asking what kind of people we are raising today and if society will continue to develop or if we’re reverting back into a bunch of compassionless Neanderthals. Granted, her peers will probably have learned something about themselves after having listened to the tapes and may become better people for it.
The second question you’re left with is how often you yourself have unknowingly, unwittingly participated in such a campaign yourself. We often forget that we are not the only force in the universe and the things we do can be like drops of water on stone. One drop alone does no damage, but every drop contributes to the destruction of stone over time. Humans are, in general and always to some extent, egocentric. Everything we do or experience is always viewed in relation to ourselves, which often gets in the way of seeing the full picture. Seen in this light, some of what Hannah experienced is understandable, if not excusable. Might we have unknowingly acted the same? How does that leave us in the end? Are we really better than animals that kill their own in an attempt to survive themselves? It’s all really quite complex. The 13 reasons throw up a lot of questions about ourselves and the human race, which is what makes the book so powerful. It’s not just that Hannah committed suicide or that she could have gotten help, it’s that we all could have been as guilty as the 13 without intending it.
Frankly, I think this is a book everyone should read. It’s compelling and thought provoking without being soppy and over dramatic. It’s Hannah saying, I did this and this is why without asking for pity or tears. Yes, she is getting her own back in a way as it will surely wound those who listen (unless they are psychopaths), but it’s not a vicious attack and may even have a positive effect in the end.