Content warning: suicide, bullying, sexual violence.
Unusually, I watched the TV adaptation of this book before I read it. It had caused quite a stir for Netflix, who was criticised quite soundly both for the portrayal of suicide and the failure to provide adequate warnings or support information. This in itself has raised a lot of questions about the responsibility streaming services have to their viewers, and more broadly about the regulation of streaming services as a whole. However, I digress. This is a blog about books, and it actually wasn’t until I had started watching the TV series that I realised that it was based on a book. I managed to wangle a copy, and it was the second book I read on my five weeks of American literature. I cracked it out and finished it before I even landed in California. Considering yesterday was R U OK Day, I think this is a really good book to review. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photograph of it before I eventually gave it away to the San Clemente Friends of the Library bookstore. You’ll just have to make do with the photo I did take instead.
“13 Reasons Why”, or “Thirteen Reasons Why” as it was originally published, by Jay Asher is a young adult novel about a girl called Hannah who has committed suicide. Shortly afterwards, Clay, who was one of her classmates finds a parcel addressed to him containing 13 cassette tapes. As soon as he begins to listen to them, he realises that the tapes were made by Hannah shortly before she died and that each tape represents a ‘reason’ why she decided to commit suicide. As the book progresses, more is revealed about Hannah, her relationships and the way she was treated by her classmates in school.
Reading this book after watching the TV series was like looking at a sketch after seeing the finished artwork. Asher has the bones of this story down and it has a lot of important messages about mental health, bullying, consent and the responsibility teens have to one another. I think he captured the nuance, fragility and complexity of teenage relationships well and really contrasted the power teens already have to deeply impact each other’s lives against their inability yet to fully deal with the consequences. It’s a sparsely but powerfully written book, with a lot of focus on Hannah’s narration through her tapes and conversations that had happened in the past.
Without wanting to compare it too much to the TV adaptation, I do think all the layers added to the story by the Netflix series really gave it a lot of extra depth. Things that weren’t connected became connected. Clay’s own mental state got much more of a spotlight. The impact of Hannah’s suicide on her classmates became more pronounced. However, not all of the changes were necessarily positive ones. The Netflix series is very flashy, and a lot of the choices felt like they added to the drama or the cinematography rather than the underlying messasge. This includes the method by which Hannah commits suicide. Where in the book it’s mentioned offhand that she used pills, in the TV series the audience is confronted with a far more graphic (and, some argue, harmful) depiction of her cutting her wrists.
I think the strength of the book is that the focus in not on the suicide itself, but on the bullying, sexual harassment and ineptitude around Hannah that led to her deteriorating mental state and the inability of those around her to recognise the signs and offer meaningful help. While it may not be the most lyrical book you’ll read, if you want to read the simpler story that led to acclaimed TV series, it is nevertheless an important book that helped to kickstart a growing awareness of suicide.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.
If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.