Tuesday, November 11, 2008
weekly book review: thirteen reasons why, by jay asher
Clay Jensen comes home from school to discover a mysterious package, addressed to him and anonymously left on his front porch. His excitement turns into curiosity when he opens the box to discover it full of cassette tapes, each side numbered from one to thirteen in dark blue nail polish. But after popping the first tape into an old cassette player, Clay's excited curiosity quickly turns to sick dread as the voice he hears on the tape is that of Hannah Baker - a girl who was his classmate, his crush, and who committed suicide two weeks earlier. Hannah's unexplained death rocked her community, hitting sweet and sensitive Clay particularly hard. It was widely assumed she left no explanation behind for why she chose to end her life, however the voice Clay hears speaking through the tape indicates that this is not so. Hannah has thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life, each explained in full in the tapes that have fallen into Clay's possession. Apparently, Clay is one of those reasons, and in order to discover why he must listen to Hannah's tapes, regardless of how difficult a job it may prove to be.

What first struck me about Jay Asher's novel is how much young adult fiction has changed since I was a kid. My clearest memories of the genre include books like Judy Blume's Blubber - novels that taught strong lessons about bullying and the importance of empathy. In another era, pushing the envelope meant writing about teenage sex (Forever), drug use (Go Ask Alice), or eating disorders (The Girl in the Mirror). But while these topics were once considered shocking and sometimes taboo, this is clearly no longer the case. Sex and drinking are now accepted elements of the genre, so it takes much weightier issues such as suicide, child prostitution and murder to shock us. At times, I find this depressing. And yet, I can’t help but see it as a natural sort of evolution. I don't think Asher set out to shock readers with Thirteen Reasons Why, rather he saw a story that begged to be told; one that, unfortunately, hits many young people in a very real way.

What struck me next was a feeling of intense inferiority. Here I am, struggling to pen my own young adult novel, when I pause to read Asher’s debut - his clever, strong-voiced, well-crafted, suspenseful debut. Part of me wanted to hate this book, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it filled me with such strong feelings of jealousy. Thirteen Reasons Why is a wonderful novel, and Jay Asher is a talented storyteller. It speaks to adults as well as it speaks to kids, and I know this because once I cracked it, I couldn’t put the little bugger down. Listening to Hannah tell the posthumous story of her downward spiral and ultimate decision to give up is as thought-provoking as it is absorbing, and her voice rings clear and feels tragically real.

Overall, Thirteen Reasons Why is about the importance of listening, both to what is said as well as to the clues that go unspoken. Like much of today’s serious young adult fiction, it’s a sobering read, but it’s also a terrific book. I just wish I had come up with the idea first.

Jay Asher
2007, 288 pages

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Blogger Carrie said...

I reread this review after your recent blog post, and I'm definitely intrigued. While I'm always interested in whatever you're reading, this is one occasion where I think I need to read this book. Do you have a copy I could perhaps borrow? :)

I hope your writing is going well. I know you'll end up with some good ideas, even if you don't write a perfect novel in a month, cause you're smart like that.

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