The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

impossible knifeFor the past five years, Hayley Kincaid 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?*

I don’t think I’ve ever had such a hard time starting a review for a book I liked so much! This is a really powerful story and to be honest I wasn’t sure how well a book about PTSD could be written for teens. Laurie makes the point in the Q&A at the back of my edition of the book that plenty of teens are forced to deal with difficult situations like those presented in this story every day; they can handle reading about it. She did an excellent job of portraying these issues candidly, unafraid to hold anything back.

The first thing that struck me was the reference to Slaughterhouse-Five. The phrasing used in that book to describe the effects of PTSD on the mind, the way the character becomes “unstuck from time”, are familiar to many and an effective means of describing what can be a difficult condition to understand. There are also single-page chapters scattered throughout Laurie’s book, told from the point of view of Hayley’s father, describing some of the horrors that he saw so that readers can begin to imagine what causes him to wake screaming in the middle of the night.

Questions about proper parenting are raised, often by the teenagers in the book, most of whom are forced to be mature beyond their age. What happens when it is the child who is taking care of the parent rather than the other way around? What effects does divorce, particularly messy divorce in which the parents are incapable of having a civil conversation, have on children? How does addiction impact families, especially when parents are naively enabling the troubled child? These are the biggest topics tackled in this story and even though some of the issues are not resolved by the end, the way some issues in life are never resolved, the fact that they are being spoken about is enough. There are unfortunately children out there who have to face these questions in their every day lives, and sometimes knowing you are not alone is enough to lighten the weight on your shoulders, if only a little bit.

Romance is, of course, another part of the plot. The way the love story was woven in with the problems faced by the two characters was really interesting and realistic. Hayley and Finn don’t automatically become stronger as a couple because they both have rough home lives; they don’t always spill their darkest secrets to each other. Instead, they must learn to trust each other, to communicate about what is happening in their lives so that they can face it together instead of shutting each other out. The two grow apart at times, as people do, but they eventually come back together and learn how to grow with one another instead of taking the easier route of struggling alone. It can be hard to unload your baggage on someone else, but when you find the right person, you have to trust that they care enough about you to want to listen, even if there is nothing they can do to help.

Forgiveness is huge in this book. It doesn’t come naturally and it doesn’t come easily, but pride can be a dangerous thing. Recognizing when to let someone back in your life is a sign of maturity, and learning that people can change is an important life lesson. Forgiving yourself is just as important, whether it is for something that you have done purposefully or something that you had no control over, like surviving when someone else did not.

This book is an eye-opening glimpse not only into the realities faced by war veterans and their families, but of those faced by every day teenagers whose parents are unable to get their act together enough to shield their children from the shrapnel of their broken marriage. It is both beautifully and quirkily written, metaphors weaving themselves between the stubborn and sarcastic protagonist’s voice. It was an honor to have met Laurie at TBF last weekend and I’m excited to explore her other books as well!

*Cover image and synopsis are from Amazon.com.

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