Clay Jensen, a good guy, smart kid, and known for nothing bad, comes home one day to discover a box with seven cassette tapes waiting for him. That's odd enough; in this day and age who uses cassette tapes, anyway? And who has recorders to make them? Actually, who has a music system in their house that isn't only usable by iPod and can play a cassette?
It doesn't end there.
Clay finds an old portable stereo of his father's in the garage and pops the first tape in. What he hears crackle to life is something he least expects: the voice of his classmate who had recently committed suicide.
Straight away you're plunged into the tale of Hannah Baker and the various events in her life that aided her in sinking so far into a dark hole that she decided it wasn't worth living anymore. That's a tough subject, teen suicide, and it's even tougher to be hear a voice from the grave number off the various reasons that she felt her life was unlivable.
This book held some special interest for me as a few years ago a woman I know messaged me about it. Her son's teacher was assigning the book in class and her husband felt it was wrong, he wanted to demand that their child not read it, but she wasn't so sure. I hadn't read the book yet myself but knew the subject manner, "He should read it!" I told the woman, "It's a tough subject and maybe he'll have some questions due to it but it's a subject that shouldn't be ignored."
I felt a little guilty telling her that with such confidence when I had not actually read the book myself but I am a firm believer in people reading books if they want to and certainly not trying to ban them from the classroom. I have my own experience with suicide or near suicide, not personally, but through people I knew--well or otherwise. Why would someone want to kill themselves? It was something that I couldn't quite comprehend as a middle schooler when a kid on my school bus had committed suicide. Why would they do that? It was the first death I experienced of someone who was young. Mind blowing.
But suicide is often a hushed subject just as various other issues in the world are. Bullying, victimizing girls, slut shaming, it's all common knowledge if you pay an ounce of attention but in mixed company, in schools, it doesn't seem to be greatly highlighted. At least in recent years there seems to be a greater attempt to end the issues I listed above, which is great, but sometimes you need to be reminded of the affect it can have on people.
While Hannah records the tapes and recounts her story she often sounds bitter and I found it hard to be sympathetic with the character. I feel, in some ways, the author did a disservice to the subject manner by making it so hard to like Hannah. At times I wanted to tell Hannah, "Get over it," but who am I to say that? The reasons Hannah lists often sound like common experiences for teenagers. It's that kind of stuff a lot of people experience day to day or, if they're lucky, only once or twice in their miserable teen years. But sometimes it doesn't take much for someone who is already exhibiting signs of depression to fall further under. For Hannah, the varying instances are enough to push her over the edge.
The book also has Hannah recounting the number of times that no one helped her or tried to save her. All the while, Clay listens to the tapes and goes through a myriad of emotions that are completely understandable if you were to be in his shoes. His reactions, to me, were honest and I felt for him as a character. With surprise, shock, and anger he kept thinking, "But I could have helped you. I didn't know you needed help. You didn't say anything." Again, this is something (at least in my experience) can happen. Outsiders may not catch the signs of someone spiraling down and the person who is drowning in the pressures of the world may think they're making it quite obvious when it's not.
I'm going to say this, the book wasn't an enjoyable read. Not to say that it wasn't written well or any of that. The book was emotional and it was hard to swallow because of what it dealt with. This book isn't meant to be happy. There is no happy ending. It's tough as suicide is and to make it fluffy would be a disservice to the illness of depression and suicide.
When I finished the book I thought of the woman asking me if she should let her son read that book. I never found out if she let him read it or not but I wonder, if he read the book, how did he react? How did his class react? Maybe I'm too removed from High School now in my great old age of late 20's to grasp how teens would handle this book but based on that, I still think it's readable for teens. I'm sure even as a teenager, when my emotions were all over the place and I was still experiencing the horrors of life for the first time, the book would have upset me but I think it could have gotten me to think a little more and reconsider the spreading of rumors, whispered "secrets," and other various things that teens innocently do without the mind that they are really harming anyone.