The Impossible Knife of Memory
Laurie Halse Anderson
Almost immediately after sending Monday's Kirkus column to my editor—in which I admitted to not yet having read The Impossible Knife of Memory, a fact that I felt excruciatingly guilty and failure-y about—I finally sat down with it.
After five years of trucking, Hayley and her father move to his hometown in upstate New York: the "official" reason is so that Hayley can attend a traditional high school for her senior year; the real reason is that her father's PTSD is making it more and more difficult for him to cope with... well, everything.
It's a hard transition. Hayley is bright, passionate, and doesn't suffer fools gladly—even if they happen to be high school teachers—and she spends more time in detention than out; her father has already been fired for multiple jobs, and his drinking and nightmares are both increasing at worrisome levels.
As Hayley starts to find her footing at school—friends, a ceasefire with teachers and the administration, a boyfriend—life at home gets scarier, more overwhelming, and complex... and while she adores her father and is entirely protective of him, it makes her angry and frustrated that her future will begin and end with being his caretaker.
This is not a tour de force à la Wintergirls, which affected me so profoundly on so many levels—emotionally, intellectually, psychologically—that even looking at the cover, five years later, still brings it all back. The Impossible Knife of Memory is a much more straightforward, linear read, and while it's certainly strong in terms of voice, character, emotional truth, and plotting, I don't think it's going to stay with me the way that Wintergirls has. However! Some of my visceral reaction to Wintergirls was very personal, so it seems likely that this one will affect some readers—readers with personal connections to the issues explored—similarly.
Aspects I especially loved:
Hayley's voice. She's a throwback to Melinda from Speak in some ways, in that she's funny and furious and hurting and slow to trust. The situation at home is at the forefront, but that doesn't stop her from thinking about friendship and romance and love and sex and jerks at school and history and what she wants out of life. Her perspective—entering a traditional high school for the first time as a senior—gives her an unusual view, rather like Cady in Mean Girls, except waaaaaaaaaay less inclined to make allowances for, well, anything:
If everyone was really having sex, then why was it paradoxically a hush-hush-whisper thing and a scream-it-online-and-in-the-cafeteria thing? If everybody was really having sex, why weren't more girls sporting baby bumps? I knew the statistics. I also knew the closest abortion clinic was more than a hundred miles away. Most of my classmates couldn't remember to tie their shoes in the morning. I had no faith in their ability to use birth control. Either nobody was getting laid and everybody was lying about it or the school was putting contraceptives in the oatmeal raisin cookies.
The romance is not the focus, and it doesn't fix everything. Is her relationship with Finn important and life-changing? Yes. Is it perfect? No. Is he perfect? No. Is she downtrodden? No. Are they always fair to each other, always thoughtful, always kind? No, no, and no. But they're both TRYING. They're both trying to be there for each other, despite their other commitments and worries and troubles, and ultimately, they are a source of strength for one another. There's a lot of give and take, patience, and a distinct willingness to step back when needed, and step forward when necessary.
The terrorism drills. In a book that deals so frankly and in depth with the aftermath and long-term effects of war, it's very fitting that Anderson made a point of showing an everyday American high school as a combat zone.
No easy answers. YOU KNOW HOW I LOVE THAT IN A BOOK.
Book source: Bought.