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.
Hannah Baker has killed herself, and no one knows why. That is, until a(n un)lucky few get a shoebox full of cassette tapes that detail, in her own words, the events that led to Hannah deciding to take her own life. These tapes (13 sides in all “because there are 13 sides to every story”) are narrated by Hannah and paint the picture of the last days of her life. We follow Clay Jensen, who loved Hannah, secretly, and can’t think for the life of him why he deserves to be part of “Baker’s Dozen.” Each side tells the story of one person whose actions — large or small — packed onto the giant snowball that finally flattened Hannah Baker.
Before the deed was done, each person on the tapes found a red-starred map of their town slipped into their locker with the words “SAVE THIS–YOU’LL NEED IT” written on it. As Hannah tells each story, the listener is invited to follow along by visiting each starred spot on the map. Now why, you might ask, should any of these people actually listen to these tapes? Personally, I’d be compelled to listen simply out of curiosity. I love feeling like I’ve been let in on a secret truth about someone that illuminates who they are, which is one reason why I love this story so much. However, the kids on these tapes have a different incentive: a threat. If they fail to listen to the tapes and pass them on to the person whose story follows theirs, a second set of tapes will be released “in a very public manner.” How can a dead girl keep track of who’s passing the tapes on? Well naturally, she has help.
So many aspects of this story made me want to see it through to the end, even without the threat of being watched. First, there’s discovering who Hannah was and what drove her to erase herself from existence. Second, there’s the mystery of why Clay (a person you also learn about as Hannah’s story unfolds through his headphones) ended up on her list. Third, you start to make connections between the people whose stories have already been told. Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, you recognize yourself in the mundane (and not-so-mundane) instances recounted on the tapes. The ultimate significance of this story lies in the realization that every single thing we do effects others, often in ways we could never imagine. You’ll likely spot yourself and at least one person you’ve known somewhere in this story.
This isn’t just a book for people who have dealt with severe depression, though it is helpful to have someone to commiserate with (even if that someone is fictional). This book is for anyone. Everyone. Especially those who may know and love someone dealing with depression. One character expresses the viewpoint that Hannah “just needed an excuse to kill herself,” and other characters express something similar. But that’s just their excuse, their way of dodging responsibility for their part in what became of her. Hannah owns up to the fact that, in the end, it was her decision and no one else’s. But that’s not the point. The point is that our actions have the power to influence the way other people think and feel, for better or for worse. I find myself forgetting that from time to time, but this book never fails to remind me.
Far from merely being a sad tale, Thirteen Reasons Why is also (darkly) funny, insightful, and conjures up the familiar and strange fact that high school is a world unto itself. I haven’t reread many novels. After all, there are so many stories out there to get lost in! In fact, I can just barely count the ones I have read more than once on two hands (Pride & Prejudice, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, The Giver, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda). I could probably give you thirteen reasons why Jay Asher’s novel is among them.