I just finished reading Jay Asher’s debut novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, and although my brain is buzzing, I can’t seem to find my words. So I’m going to ramble of a bunch of statistics, which hopefully, will highlight the gravity of the issue Asher deals with in his novel.
Did you know:
Approximately 8 in every 100 000 people aged between 15 and 24 in the United States commit suicide every year.
Among 15-19 year old Australians, suicide accounted for a total of 85 registered deaths in 2004, at a rate of 6.2 per 100,000 people (7.5 for males, 4.8 for females). Suicide accounted for 15.2% of total male deaths and 17.1% of total female deaths registered in this age group (source: Suicides, Australia, 1994 to 2004. ABS, 2006).
Teen suicide is often attributed to drug and alcohol abuse, poor family situations, extreme trouble at school, mental illness. Sometimes, pinpointing a reason why someone kills themselves is impossible and friends and family of the deceased live out the rest of their days wondering why, what – if anything – they could have done to help.
In Thirteen Reasons Why, readers are given a detailed blow-by-blow account of Hanna Baker’s journey towards death. Before she dies, she records her story on a set of audio tapes. She devises a plan to make sure that everyone featured on the tapes receives them, and listens to every single word she says.
When Clay receives the tapes, he doesn’t know what they are at first. But after listening for only a couple of moments, the realisation that he is in possession of Hanna Bakers last words, and that he is somehow part of her downward spiral is a sobering thought indeed. Clay listens, not just because he wants to learn about his role, but because it was Hanna’s last dying wish that everyone that receives the tapes, listens to them in full.
Clay always had a thing for Hanna Baker, but they’d only made out once, so what could he possibly have done to contribute to her decision to kill herself? As Clay is listening, often with tears streaming down his face, he realises that his failure was unavoidable. Sure, he could have tried harder to get through to Hanna in her time of need, but she pushed him away – and how can you help someone that doesn’t want to be helped?
Some of the events that unfold in Hanna’s tale are really quite horrific, and I found myself questioning the very essence of human nature over and over. How could these kids do these kinds of things to each other? Can’t they see that their actions, their words, all come with consequences? Or maybe they do know, but just don’t care? Reading Thirteen Reasons Why made me realise that I’m either a very naïve person, or I’ve lead a very sheltered life (quite possibly a combination of both). Teenagers can be the cruellest creatures on Earth.
Foresight is not a characteristic commonly employed by the characters in this novel. From the those that contributed to her demise, right through to Hanna actually committing suicide, no one looked past the now. Would Bryce have done the things he did if he knew it would lead to Hanna ultimately deciding that she couldn’t live with herself anymore? Maybe Clay would have stayed in the room longer, maybe Justin wouldn’t have started that rumor. Maybe. But maybe not, too.
Hanna herself was guilty of lacking foresight. She couldn’t see past her immediate problems, couldn’t see that her life wasn’t necessarily always going to be at the whim of the idiots she went to school with. But I argue that she couldn’t see these things because she didn’t try. She didn’t want to see a life beyond what she knew. The question then stands, then, if the combination of events Hanna blames as the source of her desire to die, hadn’t happened, would she have found other reasons to justify her death? Was it set in her brain, programmed from birth? It’s a difficult question to answer and one that often gets asked in the wake of a successful suicide attempt.
Teen Suicide is not an issue to be taken lightly, so I was happy to see Jay Asher dealing with Hanna’s death in a responsible, accurate manner. Thirteen Reasons Why is written in simple, straight-forward language. As this is Asher’s debut novel, it’s hard to tell whether such a technique was intentional or is just the product of his natural writing style. But it works, very well. Hanna’s story is profound enough that it does not need the help of colourful language to get the message across. Asher captures the essence of the teenage mind brilliantly, providing a captivating, raw tale with lessons about humankind for all.