The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

(Photo by Carla Rennick)

Summary (from For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is only the second book by Laurie Halse Anderson that I’ve read, and while it shares some elements with Speak, I found it much more difficult to get through. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and most of the reasons for my struggle are very personal, so I don’t necessarily count it against the book.

I loved the opening of the novel. It gives immediate insight into Hayley’s unique personality, which Anderson later unpacks through revelations about her family and her past. Like Melinda in Speak, Hayley uses sarcasm and wit to force her emotions and memories into hiding. However, she does this to such an extreme that I found her character a bit more difficult to relate to. She closes herself off from the reader in much the same way that she closes herself off from her friends. This means that, like Gracie and Finn, we have to be patient and observant in order to get to know her.

One of the things I most admire about this book is the way Anderson treats drug use. Instead of decrying it from a distance, she gives Hayley a close-up view from two different sources–her best friend and her father. We see what could be a stereotypical angle of (very minimal) peer pressure, but Anderson takes the time to develop Gracie’s character and background so that we can understand the motivations behind her choices. The circumstances surrounding Andy’s drug use are even more layered. Hayley understands why her dad smokes weed, for instance, but she hates how it affects his attitude and the people he associates with. She also knows that there are different ways to use drugs and alcohol–as a coping mechanism and as a weapon against oneself.

I also loved the inclusion of Andy’s memories amidst the rest of the narrative. They are incredibly jarring and difficult to read, but I think they are an excellent way to temporarily thrust the reader into the mind of a traumatized war hero without making the story entirely Andy’s. They also help to mitigate some of  the disgust the reader might feel when he treats Hayley particularly badly. I would have liked to see a few more instances of this viewpoint, though, to round out Andy’s development.

Overall, I think this is an inspiring and important book. The light that it sheds on mental illness, military life, drug abuse, and other issues will support teens as they examine their own struggles and will help them to be understanding of their peers who, like Hayley and Anderson herself, come from families affected by PTSD.

Favorite line: “I closed my eyes, pretended I was twenty thousand feet in the air, high enough to be able to see where we came from and where we were headed.”

Rating: 4/5


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