TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY by Jay Asher is a surprisingly intimate story.  Everything about it, the diary-style story-telling, the very limited number of characters, even the small town setting, add to the sense of invaded privacy in this story.  Which is another lesson for me about how everything can contribute to the tone of a book.

The setting for TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY is about as familiar as a setting can be.  Small town America.  As Clay Jensen listens to Hannah Baker’s tapes, which are an eerie version of a suicide note, he goes to each of the locations that she describes.  If this had been set in New York or L.A., doing this would created a very different atmosphere.  To start with, Clay follows Hannah’s story from the evening into the night.  He has just enough time to catch a few of the businesses she refers to before they close.  This is a city that goes to sleep after a certain time, which only highlights Clay’s sleeplessness.  You get the sense that he’s alone, the streets are deserted, and there’s nobody around to really notice what he’s doing.  In a larger city, I think it would be harder to pull of the feel of utter desertion.

And then there are the two main characters: Clay Jensen and Hannah Baker.  The opening of the book shows a young man clearly traumatized by what he just heard on a set of tapes by Hannah.  He’s passing the tapes on, sending them through the mail to next person on the list of thirteen people she holds responsible for her suicide.  The rest of the book is a flashback of Clay listening to the tapes.  Although I didn’t get an immediate sense of his character, you end up liking Clay.  I knew a dozen guys just like him in high school: sweet, deceptively sensitive, and harmless. Hannah’s suicide tapes hurt him which leaves you wondering how he could possibly be part of her death.

Hannah Baker is a very complicated character.  Let me just say, I didn’t really care for her.  And I think that’s why reading about her, knowing that she committed suicide, is just a little easier.  First of all, she lays the blame for her decisions on a lot of other people.  Second of all, sending out a blame-filled suicide note is more than a little sadistic.  Third, there’s something about her “voice” that’s irksome.  These tapes are her revenge for perceived mistreatment and it comes across that she’s actually enjoying this project.  So, while I did feel sympathy for her by the end of the book (I mean, really.  I’m not heartless), this books wasn’t as painful as it could have been.  It wasn’t as painful for me as SPEAK.

It’s a reversal of your expectations.  And I felt like the decision really worked well, especially from a story-telling point of view.  I’ll go into it more in the next post but Clay is essentially our narrator.  He’s the filter for the story we’re reading.  What if we find out he did something horrible to Hannah?    What if it turns out that this guy we really like did play a serious roll in this girl’s suicide?  You read on because you what to know why he got these tapes, but you feel a little dirty and voyeuristic listening in on this girl’s story.  Which is why the book is so unsettling.

So next time, I’m going to look at the plotting.  My version of the book has a teaching tool, called, “Thirteen Questions for Jay Asher”.  In it, he states that he intended TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY to be a suspense novel and I do believe he achieves just that.  If you think about it, that quite a feat, since we already know how things end for Hannah.  So next time, plotting.