I’d had this book on my radar for some time, even though, for many reasons, suicide is not a subject I like to read about. But it was a YA phenomenon, and so, prompted by the Netflix hype, I finally read it, and…
I had mixed feelings.
After finishing the book, I went and watched the series, too. So I’ll try and separate out my feelings about the book and series, as they were two very different things, but obviously they’re somewhat inextricably linked. So here goes…
The story is told mainly from the perspective of Clay, who’s been mailed a box of cassette tapes after his classmate Hannah commits suicide. Each tape contains a “reason”, and by reason she means person, who did something to contribute to her decision to kill herself. Clay listens to the tapes, and they get passed onto to the other people on them. By the end of the story you put the puzzle pieces together to see how all these people are linked, and presumably how everyone could have done something differently to make Hannah not kill herself.
Since the book became a show, a lot of the controversy on the story has risen to light. Some consider it new, but I’ve seen people discussing this book and its subject matter for years. Many people said it wasn’t a realistic depiction of mental illness. Others said it glorifies suicide. Still others defend it, say it brings important topics like suicide and bullying and rape culture to light.
Here is what I think.
I didn’t like this book. Here’s why:
1. It doesn’t paint what, as far as I know, is a realistic depiction of mental illness and suicide. I am not a mental health expert. I have not lost anyone close to me to suicide. I’m not fully ready to talk about my personal experiences with entertaining the idea of suicide (I hope someday I will be, but delving back into your darkest times is rough, not made any easier with the passage of time) but suffice to say, I know what it’s like to think about it, and I know at least some of what goes into that thought process. And I agree with a lot of critics; kids don’t generally commit suicide for reasons. Hannah, in the book, is very clear that all these little things that everyone did are why she killed herself. But that, to me, does not ring true.
But more important than my opinion — people who have actually been through things like this, as well as mental health experts, say that it does not ring true. If you’re going to handle such important subject matter, I think it’s important you handle it well. And this book fails in that aspect.
(For what I think is a much more realistic depiction of the mental illnesses that can lead to suicide, read All The Bright Places, by Jennifer Niven, instead.)
Some other problems I had with the book:
2. I didn’t like the voice. In the book, Clay listens to the tapes all in one night, so all we really only get Hannah’s voice, interspersed with Clay’s. It’s not my favorite way of telling the story.
3. It didn’t make me feel. I just didn’t feel much connection to the characters, and so when the suicide happens, I’m just like, okay, then. No emotional connection = the story did not succeed for me.
4. The other characters were not well-rounded. They were just names on the tape; we rarely meet any of them. So I didn’t feel much for them either.
Was there anything I did like about the book?
The pacing was pretty good. I was turning pages fast to find out what happened, so I have to give it at least two stars. But all the other problems, along with the biggest problem of all, means I am generally not a fan of this book.
There were things I liked about the show. Such as:
1. The cast. In the show, we get a ton more from the other characters (the “reasons” on the tape) than we do in the book. We get scenes from their perspectives, and they become full-blown people rather than just Hannah’s “reasons”. I liked getting to know each of these flawed people–it made the story so much more real. Also, the cast was super diverse. It’s awesome.
2. The realistic depictions of some aspects of high school. The bullying, the high school parties, the wild ups and downs teens go through, the dialogue, complete with F-bombs — so very real. With so many saccharine depictions of high school life on TV, this was refreshing, the likes of which I haven’t seen much of since My So-Called Life.
3. It tapped into my emotions. I didn’t cry at the book at all, because I just wasn’t invested in the characters. But the show, with its length and its in-depth looks at everyone, made me cry on more than one occasion. There were also the graphic depictions of rape and suicide. The image of Hannah slitting her wrists is one I think I’ll uncomfortably carry with me for some time.
4. Clay and Hannah. They were both excellently cast, and the chemistry between them was so well done and so real.
5. The depiction of rape and consent. The show depicted rape and consent in a realistic, not black-and-white manner, and I really appreciated that.
The show (still) doesn’t paint what, as far as I know, is a realistic depiction of mental illness and suicide. Hannah never came up off as depressed. Distressed, upset, angry, sad — sure. But if I didn’t know from the get-go that she had killed herself, I would not have known this was a teen contemplating suicide.
And most importantly of all:
Experts say this is harmful to teens contemplating suicide. Here is a great article outlining why. Others argue, saying it’s bringing the issues to light, it’s just fiction, etc. etc. But I think this highlights a larger problem with our culture: that we trust the opinions of ourselves or people who tend to agree with us over objective experts on the subject. If experts say this story is harmful, this story is harmful.
So. Those are my thoughts and feels. How about you? Did you read it? Watch it? Do you agree or disagree?
Image found on Penguin Teen