Book Review: 'Thirteen Reasons Why' by Jay Asher

Updated: Aug 22, 2019


I absolutely love the TV series 13 Reasons Why. If it hadn't been for that, I probably would have passed this book over, but after watching the series on Netflix (twice) I found that the paperback was in Tesco, so I added it to The Couple Next Door to give me something to read over the weekend (I ended up being too busy to read, and so it's been a fortnight since I picked this up).

I am going to compare it to the series, because that's why I bought it. I wanted to read it because I wanted to see if the book -- often so much more intimate -- could enthral me the same way as thirteen brilliant episodes did. I wanted to see the differences in characterisation, in narrative, in apportioning blame. So, if you haven't seen it (why??), I warn you that there will be spoilers.

At the front of the room, facing the students, will be the desk of Mr Porter. He'll be the last to receive a package with no return address. And in the middle of the room, one desk to the left, will be the desk of Hannah Baker.
Empty.

The novel begins with Clay preparing to post the tapes on to the next person on the list, and then jumps back to Clay receiving his own parcel before listening to them all in one night. The writing, unfortunately, often sounds twee: "Do I even have a way to play them? The garage!" Or this particular extract:

Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo.
I don't believe it.
No return engagements. No encore. And this time, absolutely no requests.
No, I can't believe it. Hannah Baker killed herself.
I hope you're ready, because I'm about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you're listening to these taps, you're one of the reasons why.
What? No!

It's melodramatic and soppy, which unfortunately is how Clay comes across -- when he's not being insufferably smug that his peers and his friends' parents think he's perfect. He's understandably upset, both about his friend/crush dying and being blamed in part for her suicide, so much so that he seems to spend the majority of the book crying: "I swallow hard. Tears sting the corners of my eyes." His tearfulness would be more emotive if it wasn't so regular.

A surprising side to Clay that we don't see in the series is his criticism of Hannah. In the series we have the other recipients of the tapes express their dissatisfaction with her methods, and Clay is her knight to defend her honour, her unwavering support in a group that wishes to absolve themselves of blame and pin responsibility quite firmly on the girl that chose to kill herself. In her absence, Netflix Clay is an avenging warrior that lashes out at Zach and anyone else who suggests that Hannah was autonomous in her suicide. The book, however, does not have the scope to have so many points of view, and Clay is more ambivalent: "It's time to leave Tyler alone, Hannah." Speaking of which, Hannah's reaction to Tyler's peeping struck me as unrealistic. Certain that someone is watching through the window, she tells how "I pulled the blankets over my body and undressed beneath them." She explains why the blinds were partially open to begin with, but why not close them -- just this once? She undresses beneath the covers, she even considers calling the police, but she does not think to close the blinds?

But it's not really Clay we're interested in: this is Hannah's story, and after months of being constructed from rumours, exaggerations, and outright lies, she can finally present her own truth. Of course, this truth is coloured by Hannah's subjectivity: rather than a television screen projecting what happens, we have Hannah's interpretation of events and motives. Coloured by her despondency as she reflects upon her motives for suicide, she's bound to be pessimistic.

This is particularly clear in her depiction of Courtney. In the series, Courtney Crimsen is almost pathologically obsessed with ensuring that her homosexual tendencies are never brought to the attention of her school friends (in fact, there are no overt depictions of queer characters in the novel). In the book, Courtney's a real bitch. Hannah recalls at the party, "Then you told me not to leave without you. 'You're my ride, remember?'" At Bryce's party, she leaves the hot tub as if anticipating what will happen. She is seen as a cold-hearted user by Hannah, and so that is the experience we the reader have of her. But it's not important that Courtney may actually have been awkward about a lesbian crush, or trying to be "nice" for less egoistic reasons than Hannah accuses her of: her actions had an effect on Hannah, regardless of their justifications. It's the effect, rather than the intent, that Thirteen Reasons Why is concerned about.

With every side of every tape, an old memory gets turned upside down. A reputation twists into someone I don't recognise.

Sexuality is a primary aspect of the novel, encompassing consent, boundaries (and the pushing of them), and the intricacies of dating. Speaking of her friend Kat, Hannah reminds Justin, "She told me you were all over her the previous year. Not literally all over her -- just staring and accidentally bumping into her in the halls. I mean, they were accidents, right?" From nursery, girls are told that boys push them because they like them, and their accidental bumping is masculine flirting, an excuse for physical contact without the terrifying intimacy of expressing real feelings. Hannah reiterates, "Earlier, when I asked my mom how to get a boy's attention, she said, 'Play hard to get.' ... And sure enough, it worked." It reiterates the traditional dating dynamic that females must be unattainable, that males must pursue until the girl weakens or gives in; that a girl who succumbs too easily is not worth the hunt.

And these physical infiltrations of personal space, which begin with accidental bumping in the halls, are pushed and tested to see just how far they can stretch -- in this case, to the hot tub. That particular incident is subtly different in the series from the book: the television scene is about Bryce exerting his dominance in a situation where he is confident in the outcome. He feels entitled to Hannah's body, and so despite her fear, despite her protests, he takes what he wants. In the book, it is a violent imposition, but it is also the culmination of Hannah's other experiences and her final refusal to fight against the reputation that others have built for her. The two versions draw on both themes, but with the subtlest of emphasis on different aspects.

The novel finishes without the convenient confession that the series inexplicably proffered, but it has a satisfactory moral that is realised in the final page. Jay Asher has a cool, easy writing style (apart from the dire exclamations) that is accessible to a breadth of audience. Unfortunately, the writing can be too trite, and the characters are (quite understandably) underdeveloped. Read it for an examination of teenage negotiations of sexuality, but for something truly amazing, try the television series.


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© 2019 Laura Maria Grierson

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