‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ by Jay Asher

My heart feels heavy. I believe I knew what to expect from Thirteen Reasons Why, and I think that it fulfilled all those expectations, in terms of both how it was written and of the content.

I had a primary reason for reading it, and for many parents, I suspect it’s the same. Is this appropriate reading matter for my young teens? I wouldn’t have bought it for them, in the same way that I wouldn’t have let them watch the Netflix series, however, a couple of years ago (when my daughter was only 11), she came home with a bundle of books she had borrowed, on a long-term basis, from her friend of the same age. She then, on her lift to school, had been talking about the books she had recently acquired with her friend in the car. I then got a call from her friend’s mum, who had taken her to school, to warn me not to let her read this one as, in her view, it was extremely harmful subject matter.

I then went to get the book, and removed it to the downstairs bookcases, and popped it behind some other books (all my shelves are double stacked – it isn’t an exaggeration to have named my blog thus) and waited to see if she would ask me about it, and she never has, up to press.

It has taken me over a year to get around to picking it up, and the (other) reason I did, was because my Facebook reading group (The Fiction Café – book club) has set several reading challenges for the year; the first of which, was to read a book about mental health. Thirteen Reasons Why was my choice for this, while it doubled up as the opportunity to see whether I felt that it was appropriate for my now 13-year-old daughter, or my 12-year-old son.

They have, since they were about 11, brought home from school, books which I was surprised that the librarian would let them borrow, as I considered them a few years too old for them. Then I thought that maybe, I was just being prudish or old-fashioned – surely, nooooo!! Generally, they loved and raced through the books they borrowed, and I kept my opinions to myself. After all, I hadn’t actually read them.

However, this is one that I am going to continue to hold back and there are reasons for this, for me personally. The first is that I don’t believe that it would be beneficial for their mental health. I have other books they can read. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, and Notes on a Nervous Planet are far superior, I think. And I would let my children read them any time, because they are essentially hopeful and inspiring, whilst being completely honest about how emotions can hurt very badly.

Secondly, I had poor mental health as a teenager and into young adulthood. I won’t go into it, but I don’t think reading this would have worked well for me. I think it would have made me feel worse. I can’t be sure of course, as those days are (mostly) a long time ago and I could well just be thinking as ‘adult me’. If it had been there, I would have read it though, and so I’m glad it wasn’t.

Apologies, as I know this has read less like a book review than I would have liked. If the blurb interests you, read it, as you won’t be disappointed in the writing or the emotional way that the story progresses, and the ending is good. It flows well, and I had finished it in a day.

Particularly if you can see it less as a blame game inflicted on other people, and more as the internalised and flawed reasoning of a young person who has suffered the perfect storm of events and feelings that has led to her suicide, and this has been written as an externalised expression of it. Also, to view it as the reasons that we should be kinder to each other.

My view is, that there is only one character in this book who does dreadful things, and I’m not talking about Hannah Baker, so the other trigger warnings, beside suicide, are bullying, sexual harassment and rape.

Samaritans (UK), tel: 116123
SANEline (UK), tel: 0300 304 7000
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA), tel: 1-800-273-8255
‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ Matt Haig
‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’ Matt Haig

‘Little Fires Everywhere’ by Celeste NG

Little Fires Everywhere

In my blog post, ‘The Thinning of the Veil’, I did somewhat commit to exclusively reading scary or bloodthirsty literature for the forthcoming weeks. In error though, I started with ‘The Woman in Black’, and thought perhaps I could have a little comfort break already with Celeste NG’s second novel, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. My friend Sarah did lend this to me a few weeks ago, so I did also think I should read and return it. So really, I’m not being a wimp; I’m being a responsible friend…

However, Little Fires Everywhere was not anything like a comfortable read. It’s a superb novel though. Matt Haig (of whom I am a big fan), described it as ‘a masterclass in characterisation’, and as usual, he’s dead right.

It starts with a postscript chapter, where we discover that a fire has been deliberately set in the Richardson family home, leaving this previously affluent family with the clothes on their backs and nothing much more. No-one has been hurt, but their youngest child, Izzy, has gone missing.

The book is set in Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, which is a community set up to be a form of utopia for its inhabitants. Founded on Shaker values of order, regulation and uniformity, it was designed to be ‘a patch of heaven on earth, a little refuge from the world’. Up until the 1960s, this patch of heaven was reserved for a white community; afterwards it became inclusive, although still essentially a symbol for white privilege, and this comes across effectively as a theme in this novel.

The plot centres around two families; the Richardsons, a large, affluent family, and the Warrens. Elena Richardson, a journalist, philanthropically places the Warrens, Mia and her daughter, Pearl, in her small downtown rental apartment block. There are glaring differences in these families’ outlooks, incomes and attitudes, yet the children of both families intertwine so much, that the lines between them all become quickly blurred. Little fires are lit.

The imagery of little fires is intelligently spread through the text. It’s like the butterfly effect, where the butterfly slowly flaps wings of smouldering embers, throwing sparks out along with the ripples. Some sparks will fade away to nothing, either mercifully or tragically. Others may form flames which can be carefully controlled, regulated and passed on like an Olympic torch. Some could burn down the world.

Above all else though, this is a novel predominantly about motherhood. Is it a bond forged by blood, or love, or both? Who is deserving of being a mother; are there rules to be followed, and who sets them? Clearly, there are going to be no simple answers, and all the central characters, as in life, are getting it simultaneously right and wrong.

I should have read this faster than I did; it’s certainly absorbing enough, but I had to take a day out. Around halfway through, I suddenly felt as though I had been seized and had a mirror slammed in front of my face, forcing me to confront myself as a person, and particularly as a mother. I felt I had to try to understand which little fires of my own I may have set, both in my triumphs as a mum, and in my many failures. You hope to ignite flames of passion, so that your children become everything that they want and to achieve what they can. But what harm do you do along the way? Have I, during the course of my 40 years on the planet, set fires which have harmed other people, however inadvertently or ignorantly? During the day in which I couldn’t read any more, I was caught up in this reflection, and atypically for me, I cried my heart out.

Such can be the power of a book. I hope I’ve learned something.

I did find that in the earlier stages of the book, I formed opinions about the characters, which unravelled completely in later chapters. There is no good or bad here, just a mass of grey areas. It’s fairly rare to feel the rush of empathy that I did for all of them. They were living, breathing entities for me, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this book. It did, and will affect me for a while yet.

I haven’t read ‘Everything I Never Told You, the author’s first novel, but I will be looking for it in the near future. I really do recommend ‘Little Fires Everywhere’, but readers should be aware for the potential for it to take its emotional pound of flesh. Not just if you are a reflective type like me, but because it tackles difficult themes; motherhood, ethics, displacement and loss.

And if you like a cozy read with a happy ending, this one might not be for you!