Thursday, August 24, 2017

Book review: 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

WARNING: Mentions of rape and suicide. The book’s recently been adapted as a Netflix series. I decided to read it before watching the show – here’s what I thought.

Originally published on W24.co.za
 
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher (originally published in 2007 by Razorbill; this TV tie-in edition was published in March 2017 by Penguin Books)

I have avoided reading Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why for a good number of years, and for several different reasons. (10 years since original publication date if you’re counting).

The furore around the TV adaptation of this has been pretty big, with some of the backlash revolving around how graphic it is as well as how the series romanticises suicide. 

Of course, since it’s been released, Netflix has updated the series to include stronger trigger warnings and there’s been an unfortunate and real-life devastating incident in which a 23-year-old man from Peru committed suicide and, like the protagonist of the book, sent tapes to various people he accused of being responsible for his death.

There’s a lot to unpack in here, but I will get to that once I’m done watching the series.

Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why revolves around 13 tapes. These tapes contain the many reasons that Hannah Baker chose to end her life. More specifically, it is addressed to people who she feels are to blame for her death.

Told from the points of view of Hannah (through the tapes) and a boy named Clay Jensen, a former classmate who was romantically interested in Hannah, 13 Reasons Why explores the insidious nature of rape culture while dealing with issues of self-esteem, bullying and victim-blaming.

It’s a book that will make you question whether or not you ever really know someone and highlights how oblivious we still are to the damaging impact everyday sexism and misogyny have on women – young and impressionable teens especially.

Asher examines just how harmful the consequences of the snowball effect are – especially in a girl whose mind is devastatingly fragile.

I’ve seen a number of reviewers state that the reasons she committed suicide aren’t justifiable at all, but I have a problem with that statement for various reasons, a) it invalidates and dismisses Hannah’s feelings and b) it implies that there are various degrees of seriousness that can be counted as acceptable for committing suicide.

The human experience is a complex one, and while I admittedly do not comprehend all of Hannah’s reasons, I understand how the snowball effect impacted her in this case. A series of small things expand, grow and take up space in your head – sometimes so much so that you simply feel you are unable to cope with anything.

The people in the tapes deserve to answer for their actions, but there are also one or two involuntary issues that I think acted as secondary catalysts to a set of circumstances that already had Hannah in a spiral of both hopelessness and depression.

And because of this she took on things that she wasn’t responsible for and instead of trying to alleviate the pressure, she started blaming herself. Can you imagine how awful it must be when it feels like your mind has become a prison and calls for help are being ignored? It’s an unsettling notion, isn’t it?  

13 Reasons Why is a novel that has an important message, and yet I’m not sure how to rate it.  Not because it’s not a good book – it’s gut-wrenchingly compelling and heartbreaking – but because it’s a book that I don’t think gives you much closure.

But perhaps, therein lies both the brilliance of the book and my frustration with the novel, because how often in life do we get answers to the unanswerable?

Purchase a copy from Raru.co.za

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