And the #1 Most Challenged book of 2017 is…
I listened to the audio edition of this book last week, in September 2018. Honestly, this book was a lot tamer than I expected considering all the controversy. In the interest of full disclosure, I have NOT watched the Netflix series based on this book, nor do I plan on watching it.
The premise of this novel is this: Hannah Baker, committed suicide. Before she died, she recorded 13 cassette tapes, her “suicide note.” Our protagonist, Clay Jensen, receives the box of tapes and we the reader follow Clay around, living vicariously through this character as he listens to Hannah’s version of the facts.
This book starts with a prologue. (It’s not labeled as such, but that’s what it is.) If you’ve followed any of my other reviews, you know I generally HATE prologues. I think they’re usually spoilers for the book…and this novel is no exception. Sometimes I even skip prologues, I hate them THAT much. Unfortunately, this spoiler-filled prologue really can’t be avoided as it’s actually the epilogue or last chapter of the book shoved onto the first four pages of the story for “dramatic purposes.” If you hate spoilers as much as I do, start the book on page five at the heading “YESTERDAY ONE HOUR AFTER SCHOOL” and read the first four pages after you’ve finished the book. Problem solved! This book will now make more sense. The first four pages of the novel are NOT repeated at the end of the book, although it feels like they should be referenced. I listened to the audio edition, so skipping the prologue wasn’t really an option. Instead, I started this book feeling like I had no clue what was going on…because the novel STARTS with the epilogue instead of the prologue. (Sigh!)
If you’ve heard any whispers at all about this book, you already know that each of the 13 cassette tapes features a different person and a story of how this person affected Hannah Baker. It’s a ripple effect. Hannah Baker is pointing fingers. She is judge, jury, and her own executioner. Clay Jensen is…us, the reader. He is someone we can live through. We see the story from his perspective, the perspective of someone who doesn’t have all the facts, of someone who cared about Hannah but never really got to know her.
Hannah is an unreliable narrator. Perhaps this is what makes this story so controversial, and also so very human. Hannah can look back at her life, see the choices she made, the choices others made, but I don’t think she was able to see the “big picture.” The story is from Hannah’s point of view and I got the impression that she was in trouble before the book started. The book hints at an event that happened at her previous school, but we never find out what this event is. Also, I think it’s telling that there’s almost NO mention of Hannah’s parents while Clay’s mom clearly worries about her child.
Did I think this was an interesting way to tell a story? Sure. As a reader, you should probably be aware that this book contains violence, bullying, and rape. The rape scene(s) could be a trigger for some readers, although they are not told in an overly graphic way. Even still, there was a party scene that gave ME pause, so be warned. Adult language is peppered throughout this novel.
Should this book be banned? No! Absolutely not!!! I don’t think this novel encourages suicide. I think it shows that small choices, both good and bad, can have a big impact on those around us. Clay Jensen is changed at the end of this story, and perhaps the reader is too. This story is more of a precautionary tale than a “how to” for someone thinking about suicide.
*As a side note, the audio CD edition is perfectly linked with the cassette tapes. The cassette tapes in the story end when the CD ends, further putting the reader into Clay’s shoes. He’s switching out tapes as I’m switching CDs. By the third time I did this, it sent shivers down my spine. What a fantastic touch! By the middle of the story, I was feeling what Clay was feeling, asking myself, “Why are you telling me this, Hannah? Why are you putting this guilt on me? I didn’t do anything wrong.” It was bizarre to become THAT immersed in Clay’s point of view. Well done!
This book is suitable for older teens (maybe 17ish) and older. I also think this book would be appropriate for parents of teens. As parents, we need the occasional kick in the pants to remind ourselves how difficult it is to be a kid in high school.
Thank you, Jay Asher!