13 Reasons Why

Image result for 13 reasons why bookI’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.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I’ve been dipping in and out of various non-fiction titles and short stories over the summer. I suppose I’ve been a bit of a butterfly, swooping from flower to flower, not settling for long to read one thing. That was until I picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skoot.

I bought it in a second-hand bookshop for a £1 on a whim, the title being vaguely familiar from listening to a Radio Four podcast. I’m so glad I did. This is a truly extraordinary book that I urge you to read. As many have said, it’s as gripping as any novel I’ve ever read, perhaps more so because of the shocking truths within it. I’m not a scientist – I scraped through Single Science at school and am sometimes embarrassed by how much I don’t know – so reading a book like this was an education for me. I knew nothing about the questionable ethics and extraordinary weirdness of the early days of cell culture research, and I certainly didn’t know the name Henrietta Lacks.

She was a black woman, born in Virginia in 1920. She was born into tobacco farming, and lived in an old cabin that once housed slaves. She lived through the worst poverty and deep discrimination of America in the first half of the 20th century, and died of ovarian cancer at the age of 31. Her doctor took a sample of her cancer cells – most probably without her consent – and these cells were the first to continue to live and grow outside the human body for any considerable length of time. They still live and grow now, in laboratories all over the world. Her cells have led to a string of vitally important scientific discoveries, and made a huge impact in cancer research. Henrietta’s cells are bought and sold by biomedical companies, and for a long time her surviving family had no idea.

Perhaps the best thing about this very special book is how sensitively Rebecca Skoot portrays the Lacks family. She took a lot of time to get to know them and earn their trust. She clearly felt a sincere affection for Henrietta’s surviving daughter, Deborah, whose warmth and eccentricity drives the narrative forward in the second half of the book. This book isn’t just about science – it’s about a family who have been treated very unfairly. Deborah carries the mental and physical scars of this, haunted by the trauma of the medical profession’s mistreatment of her family, though still fiercely proud of the contribution her mother’s cells have made to the world. Rebecca Skoot transcribes word for word what she is told by Deborah and other members of the Lacks family, so that their story is enriched by their own lively dialect. I love the image of Deborah – an uneducated woman who craves knowledge – clinging to her dictionary, falling asleep at her computer as she learns to Google information about her mother. Deborah’s spirit is extraordinary.

This book is meticulously structured and the twists and turns of this real-life epic story are very affecting. This book is a real master class for writers in choosing the perfect moment to make the next revelation. I wonder if so many extraordinary twists would test the credulity of the reader if this was fiction – for there are so many moments that are emotionally arresting and surprising. I think the reader is carried by a narrative if they care about the characters, though, and you will care about Skoot’s ‘characters’ – Henrietta herself, her children, her grandchildren. You will care about her legacy. Skoot has clearly carefully considered the order of her chapters, her timeline – and by the end you have felt the decades of this extraordinary story.