It might take the reader a chapter or so to get used to the organization of presentation. Once fixed in the reader mind, it can still become confusing. Think of things in italics as tape transcripts. They are not really transcripts because these are the words Clay Jensen is hearing, but we have to present them in some way. Clay is listening to tapes and reacting primarily to his own thoughts and remembrances of what Hannah Baker is describing. Hannah is not around for questioning; she committed suicide. She had made tapes (7) with each tape side containing anecdotes of her relationships with one individual which led her to suicide. Seven tapes, 14 sides, but the last is a one-sided tape. (Check the title). Thirteen personal stories of individuals who had done something which led Hannah to her demise.
Clay found the tapes in a package left at his house. There were instructions. Clay was to listen to all thirteen sides, then pass them on to the person following Clay on the list. The next person was to do the same. If someone on the list decided not to share because they wanted to deny their “involvement” in Hannah’s death, there was plan B. Hannah had made copies which would be released according to some unspecified trigger and the knowledge about the involvement of all 13 would become public anyway.
The reader has a choice to make, what is the reader point of view? If the person is older, like me, it would be easy to be alarmed at teenage suicide and easy to consider the reasons for Hannah’s suicide as silly. They begin as feelings of no self-esteem and develop into behavior that reinforces a lack of self-esteem. An adult would not react with suicide as a resolution. But a young person doesn’t have all the tools for coping as does an adult. A younger reader might consider Hannah’s angst, reactions, depression, and ultimate suicide to be a possible natural progression. Not a desirable one, but a possible logical outcome.
This is a novel that won’t leave the reader’s mind. It should spur further inquiries into the effects of cyberbullying or internet bullying; pick your favorite term. There is a film, Unfriended, that follows a similar style but with updated technology, no cassette tapes but a lot of Facebook and Skype screenshots lead us through a suicide that comes back to haunt four contributing friends to death. This novel also deals with the guilt that survivors feel for Hannah’s death. The survivors feel internal guilt rather than externally imposed revenge.
An interesting question is about the degree of guilt of Clay. Hannah mentions on her tapes that Clay has done nothing wrong; she is sorry that their relationship could not develop. So why does Clay feel intense guilt? Just as the reader can muster anger towards those who’s actions affected Hannah so much that she committed suicide, we might also note that there were innocents punished. Hannah caused Clay to feel unwarranted guilt.
There are no real surprises. We know a teen has died. As she tells her story on tape, we are left wondering, but not for long, who will show up as the main character on each tape. The beauty of this novel is in its telling. A story of descent into despair for many characters and the connected gloom of all the survivors as they individually decide how much responsibility they share.