Book Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

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.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

My Rating: 3.5 cupcakes

“It was always there – fear – and if you don’t stay on top of it, you’ll drown.”

The Impossible Knife of Memory encompasses a very difficult theme: post-traumatic stress disorder. Through a series of flashbacks, readers are given a glimpse at the horrors of war that Andy Kincain experienced – and is forced to relive, day in and day out. The majority of the novel, though, is from his daughter Hayley’s perspective. Although this slightly distanced me from the fact that Andy had PTSD (he could have easily been seen as someone with multiple personality disorder or an alcoholic), it showed just how widespread its effects are.

Hayley, our narrator, is cynical, bitter, constantly in fight-or-flight mode, and immediately characterizes everyone as “zombies” or “freaks.” This attitude would normally annoy me in a protagonist, but in this case, I found it very easy to sympathize with her. These traits are Hayley’s method of coping with her broken family, and showed just how much her father’s actions have influenced her. Hayley’s love for her father shines through her every action, and she was unfailingly devoted to him.

The side characters that were introduced all had their own problems, as well. From divorcing parents to drug-using sisters to battles with alcoholism, no one’s life could be described as “perfect,” and it was nice to see Hayley slowly discover this truth. It was unfortunate that some of these threads were dropped shortly after they were introduced; I would have liked to learn more about Trish and Gracie.

This dark subject matter was contrasted nicely with doses of humor and a cute romance. The banter between Hayley and Finn was entertaining (and complete with math pick-up lines!), and their relationship was characterized by awkwardly adorable moments like their “anti-date.” What I liked most about their relationship, though, was that it wasn’t perfect: both Hayley and Finn had issues that they needed to work through together, and their vastly different approaches to doing so (with snark and cynicism vs. with a smile and humor) made them complement each other perfectly. My only complaint about Hayley and Finn’s relationship is that it seemingly started out of nowhere. One moment, we had no idea who Finn was… the next, he was introduced and was immediately interested in dating Hayley. While part of that may have been due to the fact that Hayley was narrating and didn’t pay him any attention before, it would have been nice to see the reasons behind his initial attraction.

Between not knowing how to talk to boys and being stressed out about zits, Anderson does a fairly good job of portraying real teenagers. Unfortunately, she doesn’t capture their texting abilities very well. Thanks in part to autocorrect, my friends’ texts are grammatically correct, and contain properly spelled out words instead of things like, “fin sez he kn spl.” After reading a few pages of text speak like that, my head started to hurt a bit.

I now understand why Laurie Halse Anderson is on many readers’ automatically-read lists. The Impossible Knife of Memory was the first book that I’ve read by her, but it certainly won’t be my last.

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