This is one of the books in my #reread2015 challenge. I read it a few years ago and have been wanting to re-read it for quite some time. I’m glad I finally got around to it. I’ve put this book on several of my lists. It’s about time I reviewed it. So, what drew me to read this book twice? A book about teen suicide – since I am neither a teen nor suicidal. Well, it’s partially the thing that first drew me to the book – the format. The story of a girl’s suicide told through a series of audiotapes. And yes, it was the use of cassette tapes that attracted me to the story. In my edition of the novel, there’s a Q&A with Asher that asks very directly about the choice to use such an outmoded technology. I love that Asher made a conscious decision to use something old to prevent it from dating the novel. It makes so much sense. I love that he chose to do this.
Strangely, I actually found this book the first time through the Wattpad website. Someone had posted a story that caught my eye and one of the comments said that that story was reminiscent of this one. I didn’t get past the first couple pages of that posted story, but I later stumbled across 13RW on a clearance table somewhere and remembered the name. It was a lovely addition to my bookshelf.
To really enjoy this novel, I had to set aside some of my own personal feelings about suicide and just go with the story. To not think of Hannah as selfish, but as a troubled young girl who was very good at hiding the fact that she was in deep, deep trouble. One of the criticisms I’ve read about this novel is that it doesn’t accurately capture someone who suffers from depression/suicidal thoughts. That a person with those thoughts wouldn’t make a list. That there are no signs that Hannah was suffering from any mental illness. But I don’t agree. First, the assumption that the only people who suffer from suicidal thoughts are those with a mental illness, or that there’s only one way to reach a critical point in your life, is just wrong. Everyone’s experience is their own. But I also think that there are many signs in the novel that Hannah might be suffering from something more than just teen angst. The fact that she’s stored these moments away. That’s she’s let them take up so much head space. That she’s made a list with dozens of names on it. That she’s obsessed with how other people influenced and directed her life. Hannah’s obsessive personality was a clear indication that there was something wrong on a deeper level. That she clearly needed help with. Hannah ended up where she was probably always going to end up, but that doesn’t make it less sad.
But Hannah was the victim of more than her thoughts. She was also helped along by our weird social norm of non-involvement. In a culture where we are always up in everyone’s business all the time – photographers following people around just to get pictures of them going to the gym or playing with their kids or slipping up is a multi billion dollar business. People start social media campaigns to help people they’ve never met. Donate to causes they haven’t substantiated. Spread messages about people looking for people. As long as it’s all done at arm’s length, it’s all help people all the time. But we must never get to close to a real problem. Never openly ask someone if they need help. Never butt in where we don’t belong. Don’t push people to open up. It’s all so surface. And that for me is the big message in this book – get involved. Treat people properly. Be more involved in your life. Be more than just a space filler.
Knowing how to connect with other people is a major theme in this novel. The lack of understanding about what connecting really means – especially when dealing with teens. Connection beyond the physical. Beyond the surface. This is where Clay comes in. For me, Clay is not a sympathetic character. He’s actually the exact type of person I don’t want to read about. He’s so boring and normal. And he’s full of regret. Regret is the least appealing quality in a character. Okay, let’s be honest, it’s the least appealing quality in a person. Someone who lives wishing they’d made different choices. The only time this ever worked was in Being Erica (if you haven’t seen it, just go watch it. It’s on Netflix). Clay is the only character on Hannah’s tapes who isn’t guilty of anything. Who she doesn’t blame for what she did. The only one who doesn’t deserve to have to hear this story. But Clay’s guilty. He knows this. It’s what drives his obsession to get to the end of the tapes. To punch fences and follow the map. He genuinely liked this girl but didn’t care enough about her to try to get beyond the rumors. Or cared too much about what other people thought about him. He isn’t a popular kid, which is actually a nice change to read. He doesn’t care if people think he’s cool. But, he does fear that showing an interest in the slutty girl will destroy his reputation. That it will compromise his chance of becoming valedictorian. He doesn’t want to really get to know her. Not enough. And that’s what everyone else in this book did to Hannah. They put themselves and their feelings first.
I love that the novel is told to us through the eyes of both Hannah and someone she holds responsible for what she did. I just wish we’d gotten to experience it through the eyes of one of the people Hannah actually blames. I kind of would’ve liked to see it through Justin’s eyes. Getting two chapters in the book. Thinking it’s not so bad, it’s just a rumour, and then having to come to terms with knowing that he allowed his friend to rape a girl. And that other people are going to hear what he did, including the girl it happened to. A girl who might not even know what happened to her. A girl he’d just been responsible enough to not go too far with when he realized she couldn’t consent. Taking what could have been a shining moment and turning it into what was probably going to be the worst moment of his life. And hers. The defining moment in so many lives. For Clay, this is simply a story of regret. Since the entirety of Clay’s arc takes place in less than 24 hours, the fact that there’s not much growth in the character actually makes sense, but he just feels like he’s missing something.
Hannah on the other hand makes me sad and angry at the same time. I’m angry at her character for not talking to anyone. For not just telling them that she was spiraling out of control. But the more reasonable part of me understands that this isn’t how this works. The deeper you get, the worse it gets. Getting help is hard.
The tone of the novel is almost relentlessly sad. Not depressing exactly, but sad. Every time Hannah brings us into a happy moment, she drops it back down even lower when that moment ends. She meets a boy who becomes her first kiss then he starts rumours about her. She makes new friends in her new town and then they both end up betraying her. A boy asks her out and then tries to molest her. She finally hooks up with the boy she thinks might save her and ends up overhearing a rape but not knowing how to stop it. Then, when she’s finally reached her tipping point, she lets that same rapist have sex with her. Hannah is a snapshot of the moments in a teen’s life that drive them to do stupid, destructive things – not just suicide. She’s like all the terrible things rolled into one. And while some of the events might be extreme, they’re not that out there. These are moments that could happen to any young person. Hannah never learns from her misfortunes. Clay regrets all the moments he let pass him by. Tony just lets Hannah drop this thing on him. Everyone just keeps passing on the tapes. Passing on the pain. They can’t be the only one who knows. They can’t let their secrets out.
Hannah tries to ask for help in the novel. But she doesn’t ask enough. And the teacher doesn’t know how to help. So maybe, by reading this book, someone will get the help they don’t know where to find elsewhere. Maybe they won’t. Maybe it will just be something that’s read and enjoyed and put on a shelf. Hopefully, it’ll just remind us to be better to people in general.