The toll of unintended consequences
Readers of Jay Asher's debut novel for teens, Thirteen Reasons Why, should be forewarned never has a page-turner of a book been so difficult to read. This may sound like a criticism, but in fact it's a compliment, for this is the story of a suicide's aftermath, and Asher's ability to convey the anguish of someone who was left behind is truly remarkable.
The person in question is Clay Jensen, a likeable, intelligent teenager who comes home one afternoon to find a package with no return address on his porch; its contents will change his life. Inside are seven cassette tapes, each side numbered in turn to 13, with the last one blank. When he puts the first tape in an old player in his garage, to his horror the voice that he hears is coming from the grave. It is the voice of his secret crush Hannah Baker, a girl from his school who, two weeks earlier, had taken her own life.
Hannah's instructions are specific: Clay must listen to each tape in turn, for each one is about a person whose actions had some bearing on her suicide, he must follow a map she had provided to locations about town where events in her story took place, and he must send the tapes on to the next person on the list when he is finished. Over the course of the evening, Clay will find that Hannah Baker wasn't who he thought she was, and that she wasn't what everyone said she was. He will learn some bitter truths about himself and the people he knows that actions can have unintended consequences and that inaction may trigger the worst consequences of all. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens in the 15 to 19 age group; peer pressure, adolescence angst, drugs and many other factors can make growing up unbearable for many. Thirteen Reasons Why tackles the issue head on, and doesn't offer any easy answers, but it does offer hope. It's a serious read, for serious readers, that delivers a powerful look at a teen in torment.