Let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, this is an ‘issues’ book. It confronts with a number of relevant and dark topics that young adults particularly struggle with or are at least affected by. Teen suicide, mental illness, reputation-worship, gossip/slander, nearsighted impulsivity, sexual abuse, malignant narcissism, interconnected cause-and-effect, the many hazardous consequences attached to drunken partying… It neither glamorizes nor preaches—it simply tells its tale and leaves you to draw your own conclusions.
The story centers around the primary POV (point of view) in the character of Clay, a young man who receives a package from a girl he barely knew but wanted to know more—Hannah Baker…a girl who committed suicide several weeks before. In the package are a number of archaic tape cassettes holding Hannah’s voice, personally explaining why she chose the path she did, and instructions for the tapes to be passed on to the next name she’s indicated (under threat of a second copy of said tapes going public if her targets do not comply with her demands.)
That’s right. To a large extent, this story is about postmortem blackmail.
Beyond that, the book is also built on an empathic sort of intrigue. Clay is a well-meaning, well-liked, genuinely ‘nice guy’—and readers get to agonize along with him as he hears about each person Hannah calls out for offenses against her, all the while wondering when it will be his turn and what he did to deserve a spot on the girl’s vindictive list-o-shame.
I’m not sure if I should call Hannah a ‘victim’ of suicide, or a perpetrator.
She’s not an easy character to sympathize with or relate to. (And this is coming from someone who, at one time, struggled both with depression and thoughts of suicide.) She certainly had lots of time to think about her choice—to calculate, judge, plot, manipulate, and cast blame. She speculates at length on how her choice may affect people, but her parents get almost no mention at all--aside from the vague reference to the impending ruin of their small business being a factor that made her relationship with them situationally distant. Hannah doesn't seem to care or hold any empathy for the struggles of her parents. Or, indeed, for anyone else around her.
Do certain people do legitimately bad, even horrible things to Hannah? Absolutely. Are her responses to these incidences healthy or rational? As the story unfolds, the answer to that is, increasingly and adamantly, no. We as readers are left with a sort of unanswerable ‘chicken-or-the-egg’ question at the end of the tapes. Did Hannah’s myopic and self-destructive nature come from her spiral into suicidal ideation, or was it the other way around? We’ll never know, because Hannah chooses to end her own story.
As bleak and warped as this book is, it's not devoid of hope. (I’d contend that there is value in abundance, if you know where to look.) It stuns, it evokes, it haunts… it forces you to remember it. The story serves as a possible plea for action to those who might otherwise remain bystanders, and a warning to those inclined to treat others—and life in general—carelessly. Most importantly, it does a subtle job of threading through tools of social awareness for those willing to perceive what’s being offered.
Note: This reader happened to ingest the prose via audiobook, which is not my preferred method. But in this singular instance, I HIGHLY recommend the story be experienced in said format. So much of the plot is conveyed to Clay via Hannah’s disembodied voice, creating an immersive, eerie, and pitch-perfect effect. I found myself idling in many a parking space or driveway, caught up in listening.