The snowball effect. It starts with something small, something that seems insignificant at the time, but little by little those small somethings pile up. They gain momentum, and before you know it, isolated incidents that to others may seem harmless work together and just steamroll you. That’s what happens to Hannah Baker in Jay Asher’s heart-breaking and intense debut, Thirteen Reasons Why.
The novel starts with Clay Jensen arriving home from school to find a package, addressed to him, on his front porch. Inside the package are seven cassette tapes, and not until he plays tape #1 does he find out what, or who, is on them. The tapes are from Hannah baker, a classmate on whom he has always had a crush; a girl he was always afraid to talk to for fear that she was out of his league; a girl who committed suicide two weeks ago. The tapes, along with a map, chronicle the events and people that lead Hannah to make her decision. Each person mentioned on the tapes is obligated to pass the tapes to whoever comes next. Clay is not #1 on the tapes, and he has no idea why is on them. So he listens and follows along with the map to untangle the series of events that lead to Hannah taking her own life.
I listened to this book on Audible, and the performers, Debra Wiseman as Hannah and Joel Johnstone as Clay, are outstanding. Listening to the book allows the reader entirely into Clay’s experience. I was constantly on edge waiting for Clay to push play again so I could hear Hannah, hear how it all started and why it ended.
I was a teen once (and only once, thank goodness), but I’ve spent the past eleven years working in a high school. The difference is that now, as an adult, I can look back on all that made me miserable in my teen years and know that there is so much more to life than the volatile ecosystem that is the American high school. Many adults expect teens to just get this, but how can they? They have not lived beyond this experience yet, and without a guarantee that life will get better, some teens make the same decision that Hannah makes.
Hannah’s tapes are not merely to blame others for her death. On the contrary, the tapes serve the purpose of showing those involved how, as Hannah says, “Everything affects everything.” One boy turning Hannah’s first kiss into an undeniable reputation doesn’t sound like much at first, but when the listener (in this case, us and Clay) begins to understand how Hannah continually put her trust in people who turned around to betray it, we see the snowball grow. This is not to say that Hannah does not include herself in the blame game. As the events pile up, they culminate at a party, where Hannah is involved with two incidents for which she cannot forgive herself.
Even as the snowball gains momentum and begins to steamroll, Hannah still asks for help on more than one occasion. As a reader, just as it is for Clay as he listens, I was enraged, begging for those who should have to see the signs, but we know they don’t because Clay wouldn’t have these tapes if Hannah wasn’t gone.
Jay Asher does a phenomenal job this tragically moving work, educating the reader as we see Hannah exhibiting many symptoms of suicidal tendencies, all of them overlooked. Read this book. Understand. There is always more beyond what you think you know about a person. And finally, remember Hannah’s words. “Everything affects everything.”