The Impossible Knife of Memory
by Laurie Halse Anderson
Viking Juvenile, $18.99 hardcover, ISBN-10 0670012092, January 2014
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?
All preamble aside, if you’re a librarian, you already know you’re going to buy anything that says Laurie Halse Anderson on the cover. Speak may be her most famous book, but we all know it’s but one in a long line of solid offerings from this beloved author. If she wrote a book about elephants pooping, we’d all buy it on the off chance that an author as great as Anderson could find a way to make pooping elephants funny, realistic, and poignant. (Did I just throw down a gaunlet? I believe I did.)
Rest assured, Anderson is very much on her usual game in this latest issue drama, satirizing high school while taking her topic and characters extremely seriously. Hayley faces every challenge the child of a PTSD-suffering substance-addicted parent could face, but Anderson writes Hayley’s voice and the lives of the other characters (including Hayley’s father’s flashbacks to Iraq and Afghanistan) so believably that not a seam or bit of preachiness shows. The questions the narrative asks come naturally to the reader’s mind: What happens to a child who has to take care of his/her parent? What choice does that child have? What choice does a severely traumatized parent have if he or she has lost the ability to function in society? What does that kind of stress do to the lives and relationships of both the parent and the child, including their relationship with each other? Anderson faces the issues head-on, and while the answers may not always be pretty, they are fully realized.
My only quibble is that Finn, Hayley’s love interest, is a little too witty and sophisticated for a teenage boy, even one as gifted as he is supposed to be. I sometimes felt he was the personification of Anderson’s own wit and humor, trying to find an outlet in a story that could otherwise have turned completely bleak. Of course, I doubt teen readers are going to say, “Hey, that guy’s too smart!”
Recommend to: fans of the author, fans of contemporary fiction, readers who enjoy issue dramas with perhaps a bit of romance
To buy or not to buy: Like you don’t already have it on order! A great choice for YA collections.