Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author Laurie Halse Anderson
Published January 7th, 2014 by Viking Juvenile
Pages 372 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Realistic Fiction, Mental Illness
Part of a Series? No
Source & Format Received an Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher for review (Thanks, Penguin Canada!), Paperback
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters

For 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? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: Compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

“A few days after we moved in, Daddy got unstuck from time again, like the Pilgrim guy in Slaughterhouse. The past took over. All he heard were exploding IEDs and incoming mortar rounds; all he saw were body fragments, like an unattached leg still wearing its boot, and shards of shiny bones, sharp as spears. All he tasted was blood.”

It was supposed to make everything better. At least, that’s what they had hoped. When seventeen-year-old Hayley Rose Kincain’s father and war veteran, Andy, unexpectedly quits his job as a big-rig truck driver and decides to relocate the two of them to his childhood hometown in a desperate bid for some semblance of normalcy and a means of combatting his ever-worsening post-traumatic stress disorder, Hayley is anything but pleased. Willing to try anything in order to help Andy, however, Hayley attempts to settle into their new life, all while keeping a watchful eye on father. But as Andy’s post-traumatic stress episodes continue to worsen and he begins to sink deeper and deeper into the clutches of a disorder that is as insidious as it is terrifying, Hayley is at a loss as to how to help him. This, coupled with the sudden reappearance of Andy’s ‘base bunny’ girlfriend and Haley’s erstwhile maternal figure, Trish, and Hayley’s struggles to acclimate to a new school, new friends, and a blossoming flirtation with a certain newspaper editor, mean that this transition to a ‘normal life’ will be anything but smooth. Or guaranteed.

“Death rattles bone dice in her mouth, clicking them against her teeth. She spits them on the table and they roll.
We bet it all, throw everything on the line because the air is filled with bullets and grenades. We won’t hear the one that gets us, but it’s coming.
She tells us to show our hands.
We have never been so alive.”

Best known for her masterful, elegant prose and her willingness to discuss issues relevant to the youth of today with an admirable amount of candor and realism that few dare to match, Laurie Halse Anderson has long been heralded as one of the foremost voices in the young adult market and for very good reason. While I did not become personally familiar with her work until last year, when I was fortunate enough to read and review both Fever 1793 and Wintergirls, I was extremely thankful for even this small glimpse of her brilliance. So, when I was offered the opportunity to read her forthcoming 2014 release, The Impossible Knife of Memory, by Penguin Canada and Razorbill, I was quick to accept. I like to imagine that the first book I read in the new year will be a predictor of what’s to follow and if The Impossible Knife of Memory is any indication, I’m in for a wonderful year indeed. A searing, heart-wrenching examination of the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on an individual as well as on the sufferer’s surrounding support system, Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory is a literary tour de force that promises to move even the most restrained reader.

“The smoke shifted direction and I breathed in. Breathed out. On the inhale I was angry. On the exhale…there it was again. Fear. The fear made me angry and the anger made me afraid and I wasn’t sure who he was anymore. Or who I was.”

Daughter. Student. Girlfriend. Caregiver. Warrior. Survivor. These are only a few of the roles that seventeen-year-old Hayley Rose Kincain is forced to shift between over the course of any given day. Having spent her formative years being raised by her father’s common law wife, Trish, while he was away in combat before being summarily abandoned by her and receiving an unorthodox education at the hands of her father in the front seat of his big-rig, Haley has become a consummate professional when it comes to the art of adaptation. The unfortunate result is that she has also been forced to grow up far too quickly, shouldering burdens that a girl twice her age should not be expected to handle alone. Always ready with a quip or a quick comeback and the sort of girl who draws pictures of armored unicorns in lieu of answers on her math test and who creates fake sources with the names “Paige Turner” and “Art T. Ficial” for a newspaper article, Haley was a character who was extremely easy to care for, and is easily my favourite of the protagonists Anderson has crafted. Honestly? I wish I were more like Hayley. If I’m being frank, I can be a bit of a doormat. I’ve always been a notorious people-pleaser and have always been greatly concerned with how others perceive me, none more so than when I was in high school. While she can keep her poor grades, Hayley’s complete disregard for other people’s expectations was an admirable quality and something I wish I could emulate in my own life. On a more serious note, one of the things I most appreciated about Haley’s character was the duality of her nature. On the one hand, Hayley is a jaded cynic, having seen some of the worst the world has to offer in her father’s pain and suffering, becoming hardened as a result. On the other hand, however, thanks in large part to her sheltered upbringing, Hayley is a wide-eyed innocent, lost when it comes to the more subtle social niceties and practices that dictate the high school experience. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to her developing relationship with Finn. While she comes off as tough as nails more often than not, Hayley’s insecurities when it came to their fledging flirtation was extremely endearing and added some much-needed vulnerability to her character.

“I’m not being obtuse,” he said as he crossed his arms over his chest, “but you’re acute girl.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s a math joke.”
I shoved my books into the locker. “‘Math joke’ is an oxymoron, Fishhead, like ‘cafeteria food’ or ‘required volunteer community service’.”
“I think we should take each other to the limit to see if we converge,” Finn said.
“Shut up,” I said.
“I’m flirting with you, Miss Blue, flirting in the perfect language of calculus. It’s a sine I think you’re sweet as pie. Get it?”

Where can I find a Finnegan ‘Finn’ Ramos of my very own? Superficial though it may seem, this was the one question I was confronted with again and again as I devoured The Impossible Knife of Memory in a single sitting. Seriously. Where were these sort of boys hiding when I was in high school? I’m seriously considering requesting that Laurie Halse Anderson narrate my life. Even if it means a little extra drama and dysfunction, it would be well worth it in exchange for a man like Finn. Charming, adorable, persistent, and an eternal optimist, Finn provided the perfect counterbalance to Hayley and provided some much-needed levity to an otherwise sombre story. The development of this relationship was as sweet as it was touching, and I really enjoyed watching Finn slowly but surely work his way past Hayley’s defenses.

“Did you eat anything today?” I asked. What is going on? I thought.
“Not hungry.”
“What do you want for dinner?” I asked. Why were you cleaning the guns?
“Did you hear what I just said?” he asked.
“I think we have some chicken.” Were you up all night again?
“Let me sleep.”
“It’s two thirty in the afternoon.” Who are you afraid of?

It should come as little surprise to anyone who’s familiar with the author’s previous work that Anderson’s narrative voice is one of the many areas in which this novel excels. Told primarily from the first-person perspective of the protagonist, Hayley, the narrative is also underscored by brief interludes told from the perspective of her father, Andy. These haunting reminiscences of Andy’s tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are made all the more chilling when contrasted against the comparative banalities of Hayley’s high school existence. This allowed for a better understanding of Andy’s mindset and helped to explain why he often acted as he did. If anything, I only wish that more of such passages had been included in the story, although I suspect I’m simply being greedy. Laurie Halse Anderson handles the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder with the sensitivity and respect I have come to expect from her. Tensions regarding the precarious nature of Andy and Haley’s respective mental state are as taut as a wire, balancing the reader’s emotions on a razor’s edge as they breathlessly read on to find out what will happen next. I’m not one to become emotional while reading (I believe I can count on one hand the novels that have made me cry) but I’m not ashamed to admit that I was near tears during this story on more than one occasion. Hayley’s desperation to save her father from this unseen foe was as painful as it was riveting and one never knew what to expect from one page to the next. That said, one of the things I most appreciated about this novel was the noticeable tonal shift from Anderson’s previous work. Unlike in Wintergirls, where there was very little, if any, levity to assuage the bleak nature of Lia’s suffering, Anderson infuses The Impossible Knife of Memory with a biting humour and secondary romantic subplot that helped to better balance out the story. This made the novel a little more palatable and meant that I could read the novel in a single sitting as opposed to being forced to take the occasional break from the sheer emotional devastation I often associate with Anderson’s work. This was a very welcome change of pace.

“I hadn’t planned on telling him the truth. It had become easier to lie about most things because it didn’t hurt as much when he ignored me. In my defense, I hadn’t planned on finding him clear-eyed and sober, either. It was hard to know how to play the game when the rules kept changing.”

If I had one issue with The Impossible Knife of Memory, and it’s a small one, it would be in relation to the secondary characters. As much as I liked both Gracie and Finn, each came complete with their own tragic backstory that was regretfully underdeveloped. Gracie’s parents are going through a contentious divorce because of her father’s serial infidelity, while Finn’s parents are struggling to cope with his sister’s drug addiction, which is tearing the family apart. Now, this isn’t to say I didn’t like both characters and find them interesting – I did! But because these characters and their respective backstories are not examined in any great depth, it felt as though they’ve been included simply for the sake of additional conflict, which I thought was unnecessary. Listen, we’ve all heard Tolstoy’s now-famous quote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” While I understand that there are any number of families struggling with these and similar issues at this precise moment, there is also such a thing as a happy family. I would know: I grew up in one. Novels aimed at the young adult age group would lead you to believe otherwise, however. All I’m asking for is a little balance. When every single character in your novel is grappling with a debilitating or otherwise serious familial issue, it can begin to border on ridiculous and repetitive.

“Leaning against my father, the sadness finally broke open inside me, hollowing out my heart and leaving me bleeding. My feet felt rooted in the dirt. There were more than two bodies buried here. Pieces of me that I didn’t even know were under the ground. Pieces of dad, too.
“Gloaming,” dad said.

“That word I couldn’t remember. Gloaming. That short, murky time between half-light and dark.” He hugged me quickly and let me go.”

A thoughtful, heart-rending examination of the lack of support and resources offered to service men and women in need of it most and the effect of post-traumatic stress disorder on the sufferer as well as their surrounding family nucleus, Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory is my favourite of her novels thus far and would act as the perfect introduction to her work for those reluctant to begin with her more serious fare like Speak or Wintergirls. With her customary sensitivity, grace and realism, Anderson tackles the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder head-on at a time when this subject could not be more relevant or timely. The Impossible Knife of Memory is the perfect choice for fans of realistic fiction and the contemporary genre and with a subtle touch of humour and romance is not to be missed under any circumstances.

Please Note: All quotations included in this review have been taken from an advanced reader copy and therefore might be subject to change.

Overall Rating

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?

● Gillian @ Writer of Wrongs wrote “It’s so brilliant, so eloquent, so sharp and heartbreaking and funny, that I don’t dare sully it with my own words.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Tasha @ Waking Brain Cells wrote “This book is deep, dark and haunting. Anderson writes with consummate skill here and looks beyond the headlines into what PTSD in a family member truly means.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Christina @ A Reader of Fictions wrote “To sum up, you should all be reading this book. Okay, maybe not all, but if you’re the sort of reader who, like me, enjoys dark contemporaries that can make you laugh while they break your heart a bit, then GO PREORDER THIS NOW.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

16 Responses

  1. Glad to see you’re back! I am really to read this one. I really loved ‘Speak’ by Laurie Halse Anderson, and that’s the only book of hers I have read besides ‘Prom’ which was…not as great as Speak. This one sounds really amazing and powerful though, in the same vein as Speak, so I cannot wait!
    Courtney @ The Lit Girl recently posted…Review: Losing It by Cora CarmackMy Profile

  2. I love how your review goes in-depth about The Impossible Knife of Memory, which I’ve heard a lot of good things about. I haven’t read any of Laurie Halse Anderson’s books, but the realism and the ability to tackle difficult subjects appeal to me so much.

    On a lighter note, I find Finn’s jokes to be quite funny and endearing. Math jokes, ftw, haha. And I’d like my own Finn, too, please.
    alice-jane recently posted…5 Productivity Apps and BlogsMy Profile

    1. Thank you so much, Alice-Jane! I often worry that my reviews are a little too in-depth, so your comment means a lot to me.

      Finn really is too cute for words! While his story becomes a little darker as the novel progresses, it was so much fun to watch as he wooed Hayley. His jokes and his perseverance in pursuing her were so endearing 🙂
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Review: No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen HaleMy Profile

  3. I’ve heard such good things about this book, and it’s currently at the top of my wishlist! Gah can’t wait! I loved Speak and Wintergirls and I know Memory will blow me away.
    Lovely, thoughtful review Jen!

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!