I’ve just finished reading the YA novel, 13 Reasons Why. I’d heard about it before the much talked about Netflix series – in fact I’d bought a copy last summer, on recommendation from an American teenager who’d attended my summer school creative writing course.
I really liked the title. The premise seemed a bit gimmicky – I girl commits suicide, but leaves cassette tapes for the thirteen people she sees as responsible – but I was curious. There’s something about suicide as subject matter which is darkly compelling.
Overall, I really didn’t like the book. It was a page-turner, a sort of Girl on the Train for teenage girls. I read it all the way to the end, despite not liking it much, because there was something gripping about it. I suppose it was the idea of finding out who was going to be on the next tape – the cliffhangers – the unravelling ‘chain of events’ that reminded me of the death of Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls. It was a pacy read. A thriller. But no, I didn’t really like it.
The characters were flat and uninteresting, often relying on stereotypes – the fatuous popular girl, the sensitive guy, the teenage boy sexual predator. All of these concepts of characters could have been potentially interesting, but there was no depth or exploration. These stock characters were just positioned for plot purposes, like chess pieces. I was all too aware of the writer’s structuring of the plot, and rarely felt immersed.
Hannah Baker, the protagonist who commits suicide, didn’t feel real – and this was the main problem I had with this book. It felt so unlikely that anyone would kill themselves in such a measured, planned way. The narration switches between Clay, her one-time love interest, and the voice of Hannah on the tapes. While the idea of a voice speaking beyond death is appealing as an idea, this didn’t feel real. Hannah sounded too rational, too measured. Nobody on the brink of suicide could explain their feelings in such detail, surely? I’ve never had depression, and I’m not an expert on mental heath, so I’m not speaking from a point of experience of specialist knowledge here: all I know is, as a reader, I didn’t believe in this character’s breakdown. The series of events built and built, but I found myself feeling ever more distanced from them. I simply didn’t believe in the voice I was reading. Hannah Baker sounded like a literary construct.
I’ve just listened to the Woman’s Hour podcast about the Netflix series, and there were many differing opinions on whether this glossy American series is glamorising suicide, or actually getting young people talking about mental health in a useful way. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the TV series, but I thought Jane Garvey’s point was interesting: the way Hannah is still central to the story, and still speaking, is a worrying portrayal of suicide. The tragedy of someone taking their own life is that it is final. Their story stops. Central to the concept of 13 Reasons Why is that Hannah keeps on speaking. She dies, and yet keeps her voice. She gets to have her revenge, and that just doesn’t feel authentic.
13 Reasons Why portrays a suicidal state of mind as hopeless. Hannah essentially makes a list of all the people in her life that could have helped her, and didn’t. What sort of message is this? Don’t bother seeking help – it’s pointless. Well, that’s bleak. And dangerous, too.
All in all, I definitely won’t be recommending this book to the students I teach. I love the YA genre, the Holden Caulfield characters struggling to find their place in a strange, alienating world, but I prefer the optimism of writers like John Green. The Fault in Our Stars is about children with cancer, and while it’s sad and devastating, there’s a joy about life and an optimism that’s great for teenage readers. I expected a similar balance of emotions in 13 Reasons Why, but I was disappointed. It’s a page-turning thriller, and an unconvincing one at that.