I felt this one was appropriate, coming right on the heels of my Inside Out review.
Unfortunately, like The Babadook, there isn’t a lot I can say about this book without giving it away. It would feel like an unforgivable disservice to divulge such an emotional and fascinating read in excruciating detail, as the mystery is nearly half of what makes the story so interesting.
Unlike The Babadook, however, I feel relatively comfortable giving you the premise at least. The narrator is a high school senior named Clay Jensen, a shy, relatively good kid who had a crush on Hannah. Two weeks after her suicide, he receives a package with no return address on his doorstep, filled with old cassette tapes marked with numbers. When he finds a way to play them, he is startled to hear Hannah’s voice in the recordings:
“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 tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.” (Chapter 3, Cassette 1 Side A)
The only rules for package receivers are that they must listen, then pass the tapes on to the next person on the list. If they don’t, a second set of tapes will be made available publicly, promising embarrassment for certain individuals mentioned throughout. In addition, each person gets a map marked with several red stars, pinpointing locations that Hannah references in her story.
In a pretty unusual case ( judging by the books I have read previously), Hannah acts as a secondary narrator and the true protagonist. Without her, there would be no story.
I will also say this: at the start, the book seems to be about blame; whether Clay or the other characters are at fault, in their own eyes and the reader’s eyes, or Hannah herself is entirely responsible. But over the course of the story, you come to realize that the “who done it” doesn’t really matter. Hannah died, and life goes on, as it always will.
Th1rteen R3asons Why is both passive and yet gripping and immediate. We listen to the tapes as Clay does, so even though the end result of Hannah’s story has already played out, it feels as though we are right in the moments with her. As though, maybe, something we learn could help us stop the inevitable, rather than just understand how it came to be.
But we are and always shall be powerless on this journey. Just as stuck and helpless as Clay, though not in the same quasi-captive audience sort of way.
The book also shines by not making Clay the first person on the tapes. We don’t know what he’s done, so we judge him as a normal person and empathize with him, as he rides this macabre rollercoaster through a dead girl’s psyche.
But characters that you like at first may change or, at the very least, you will come to see them in different lights. Everyone is to blame and no one is to blame, perhaps even Hannah herself.
I finished this book today and chose it to follow Inside Out because it relates once again to depression, this time from the outside looking in. It may not be possible to completely 100% relate to or understand the mind of a depressed or suicidal person, but that is not the book’s main goal anyway. No, the goal is to talk about how we communicate and relate to others, and how a small, seemingly harmless thing can work to chip away at a person’s sense of happiness, safety, worldview, or even overall sense of self. How mistakes, though at times well-intentioned or comfortable in that moment, are irreversible, and their consequences may go forever untended.
If John Donne is right in saying that “no man is an island,” then it could be argued that no decision he makes can be completely divorced from the actions and inputs of those around him. But on the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt claims that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Both ideas have validity, I think, but the questions remain: Are feelings all in a person’s head, under their direct command? If we need other people to survive and thrive, as an emotionally compelled species, how much weight should we give outside opinions, comforts, or criticism? How much is any individual to blame, if at all, when all control and joy in life seems lost and something drastic seems to be the only answer?
How much can you tote or denounce, say, a chemical imbalance in the brain?
Th1rteen R3asons Why is not as fun or funny as Inside Out, but it is very mysterious, compelling, and wonderfully-written all the same. It made me wonder, and spoke to me on a very personal level. Even if you have never experienced depression, I recommend this read with all of my heart. Despite being a work of fiction, it does what only a select few stories can successfully accomplish.
It feels almost unbearably real. Human.
One particular line stands out to me, as Hannah explains to her listener why she ultimately lost interest in writing poetry:
“I stopped writing when I stopped wanting to know myself anymore…If you hear a song that makes you cry and you don’t want to cry anymore, you don’t listen to that song anymore. But you can’t get away from yourself. You can’t decide not to see yourself anymore. You can’t decide to turn off the noise in your head.” (Chapter 10, Cassette 4 Side B)
Everything in life is relative. Good, evil, happy, funny, sad. Control is relative too, and all too often, it can feel like just an illusion. And yet so many people will tell you to just smile, as if the slightest twitch of muscles in your cheeks can evaporate all of those pesky feelings right out through your skin, gone forever. I’m not saying that you can’t control anything, just that you can’t control everything.
What you take away from this is your business; it may be a thrilling mystery, an intense high school soap opera, or a cautionary tale to the unobservant. All I ask of you is to simply listen.
*All pictures belong to their respective owners. None of the images belong to me. The book was written by Jay Asher, published in 2007 by RazorBill.