A Journey

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Monday, March 7, 2011

"Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher: A Review

2007 marked the debut for a new, hopeful author from California, Jay Asher. It's not uncommon for any author to approach an idea in new and interesting ways, and Asher's first novel certainly was not born any differently. While at a museum, Asher followed along with a cassette-driven audiotour of the exhibits. Soon, coupled with personal experience and a tense moment on a dark, icy Wyoming road "perfect to inspire a suspense novel" (as Jay says in his unique and helpful Q&A section at the book's end), the two larger ideas led to Thirteen Reasons Why.

Clay Jensen can't forget the day, or, for that matter, the days leading up to it, that a dear friend and his only high school love, committed suicide. In part, Hannah Baker won't let him. She won't let any of the thirteen people (and only them) she claims led her to her final decision, forget. Now, the reasons are forever recorded on tape, chilling reminders from a voice--often angry, confused--that everyone thought belonged to a girl who was strong. But in her own words, the last hope for her side of each of the thirteen stories, she wasn't strong enough.

Asher's breakthrough novel isn't the first to tackle tough, emotional teenage issues like suicide. But, that doesn't keep Asher's message, and Hannah's, from being incredibly powerful. Teen suicide, or any suicide, is heartbreaking. What sets Asher's story apart from others, and into the New York Times Bestseller echelon, is his choice, virtually unplanned, of the novel's vehicle--the "bells and whistles," as Jay told me. After reading Jay's novel and speaking with him about it, I gave more thought to those tiny details.

Today's teens don't listen to cassette tapes, and most probably don't know what a Walkman is. But, the visual technology of the Play, Pause and Stop symbols is as common now as it was in the days of older audio formats. The set of images is printed on everything from CD players to cell phones.

Asher blends these everyday symbols beautifully with the deeper, more personal quandaries and fears of Clay Jensen as he listens to his tape, and everyone else's. As Hannah talks, at certain moments she creates such visceral reactions in Clay's mind that he actually has to press "Stop." As a reader reaching the same (or similar) gut-wrenching conclusion as Clay has, I too must take a break.

Hannah has, in a way, trapped me, Clay and the other twelve who will hear her side of each story by simply using three basic human flaws. They're bound to technology, as are we. They're also bound by two other, equally disturbing ideas. Like us, they have to hear how the story ends. And they must also know, without a doubt, if they play a part--particularly Clay Jensen, who spends a majority of the novel concerned with who belongs to the next tape--who Hannah blames for her death.

Through masterful, eerie suspense, a twist of a quest for both the characters and his audience, borrowing visual conventions that, literally, made me stop, pause, and want so badly to fast forward, and also calling upon deep-seated, primal feelings and fears many of us have about the unknown parts of our lives, Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why is a wonderfully frightening and realistic book you can't afford to ignore.

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