Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of Memory
by Laurie Halse Anderson

Paperback, 416 pages
Published June 2, 2015 by Speak (First edition published in 2014)
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Social Issues
Awards: National Book Award Longlist, Young
               People's Literature, 2014

MLA: Anderson, Laurie Halse. The Impossible Knife of Memory. New York: Speak, 2015. Print. ISBN-13: 978-0147510723. Paperback, $9.99.

Find it in your local library!

Hayley Kincaid and her veteran father Andy have been running for too long, always trying to stay one step ahead of Andy’s crippling PTSD. When they attempt to settle in Andy’s hometown for Hayley’s senior year of high school, Hayley and Andy are forced to confront the demons that have plagued them for so long in this gripping tale about the searing pain of loss and finding the courage to face the dangerous memories that threaten to consume them both.

For the last five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father Andy have been on the run.

Andy, a decorated Iraq War veteran who spent four tours overseas before an injury ended his military career, suffers from crippling waves of post-traumatic stress disorder that crash into him without warning, making it difficult to keep a job or live a normal life. Hayley, his beleaguered daughter, lived nearly her entire adolescence at his side as he drove trucks across the country to keep them afloat and his demons at bay. Homeschooling herself from the passenger seat of a big-rig, Hayley always kept one eye on her unsteady parent to prevent him from drowning in his own terrifying memories.

When Andy decides to move back to his emptied family home to regain some normalcy for seventeen-year-old Hayley, she is thrust into senior year in a traditional pubic high school for the first time ever. Unused to the structure of classes and homework and unwilling to negotiate the social landscape of high school politics, Hayley allows her caustic observations and dark humor to eclipse the possibility of a fresh start. Her only friend, well-meaning Gracie, has problems of her own as her parents’ divorce gets increasingly contentious. When Hayley meets clever, persistent Finn, she falls hard despite her best efforts to avoid her feelings, and the two struggle to open up to each other.

Meanwhile, Andy’s half-hearted attempts to reintegrate into civilian society are becoming more difficult and less frequent as he turns inward, relying on drugs and alcohol to numb his pain. Hayley assumes more responsibility for her dad as his self-destructive behavior worsens and constant worry consumes her. She deftly navigates the minefield of her father’s PTSD, but the dangers are becoming impossible to avoid.
“The fear made me angry and the anger made me afraid and I wasn’t sure who he was anymore. Or who I was.”
The Impossible Knife of Memory explores the lingering trauma of war and its impact on a family whose abiding love for each other is the only thing keeping them together, even as they fall apart.


Anderson deftly tackles the effects of America’s most recent wars on its veterans and their families without taking a stance on the wars themselves, which in itself is an impressive feat. Hayley’s first person narrative is sprinkled with Andy’s italicized flashbacks, which are truly haunting and put his suffering into perspective. Watching Andy self-destruct is heartbreaking, and Hayley’s descriptions of her routines and acute observations of his behavior intended to keep him alive left me aching in sympathy.

On the subject of Hayley’s rebellious streak: many reviewers mentioned that she’s the textbook “angsty teenager,” but I didn’t feel that way at all, mostly because I related to her a great deal. Hayley’s clearly a smart girl. If she weren’t, she would be way further behind because she had no formal education for years prior to Belmont High. I was also a smart, snarky underachiever in high school.

Imagine April Ludgate in high school. That was me.
Full disclosure: I spent every summer of junior and senior high school doing “mandatory community service” (which, as Hayley rightly points out, is incredibly hypocritical) to make up for all the detention I got throughout each year. I wasn’t a bad kid; I never got into any real trouble. I just really, REALLY hated high school. At the time, all the trappings of high school felt very juvenile and “beneath” me. I am a little ashamed to admit all of this now, and I don’t recommend going through your teen years as surly as I was. But I get it.

When you’re dealing with adult issues (like Andy’s PTSD) that are beyond what your teenage responsibilities should be, the seven hours a day you spend in high school can seem like a giant waste of time. Other people’s relationship drama and the cliques and politics of adolescence just aren’t that important. Hayley is clearly irritated and impatient with all of this because her troubles are so much bigger. I’m not saying she handles this appropriately. I’m just saying I understand.

The problem is, Hayley knows how to be a caretaker, basically parenting her father in dangerous and uncharted waters with little help from adults, but she doesn’t know how to be a teenager. Lurking under the surface of Anderson’s narrative is the knowledge that Andy’s PTSD must remain a secret if Hayley wants to avoid the foster system and surrender her dad to his demons. This would be terrifying for anybody, but especially a teen whose stability has been ripped out from underneath her so many times. Hayley must learn to trust and share her secrets in order to avoid becoming a casualty of her own internal war.

Recommended for teens 14 and up, especially fans of realistic, gritty fiction that depicts the hard realities that many teens face every day.

Below is an NPR Weekend Edition podcast interview with Laurie Halse Anderson about The Impossible Knife of Memory:

Here's the book trailer:

Laurie Halse Anderson is active on Twitter, and her website features a list of the rest of her (all awesome) books and her bio.

Teen Talk

“[Realistic YA] appeals to me because it is a way of reassurance when no one else around you in your life feels the same way.” -Samantha K., 17

Laurie Halse Anderson is the queen of hard-to-talk-about subjects in YA lit, and The Impossible Knife of Memory, along with other books like Speak and Wintergirls, are wonderful for giving readers an outlet for their own struggles so they know they're not alone.

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