The Impossible Knife of Memory
Laurie Halse Anderson explores the legacy of trauma in THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY.
You might say that Laurie Halse Anderson has been exploring the effects of trauma during her entire writing career. Her 1999 debut novel, SPEAK, explored the aftereffects of sexual assault in one girl's life. Now, in her new novel, THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY, Anderson considers the wider reaches of trauma not just on the individual, but on family members and their relationships.
Hayley Kincain isn't sure she's equipped for life in a regular high school, but that's exactly where she finds herself for senior year, whether she likes it or not. For the past several years, her schooling has been unconventional at best, as she accompanied her trucker dad on his routes across the country. Now, though, Hayley's father has returned their small family to Hayley's late grandmother's house, where he hopes to get a steady job while Hayley finishes high school.
"Laurie Halse Anderson is an expert at writing 'problem novels' that go far beyond the problems they address. Here she explores the legacy of post-traumatic stress disorder, but she does so in the context of a strong, character-driven novel that also explores issues of trust, hope, and finding common bonds with others."
Hayley's smart --- her knowledge of history, gleaned from many conversations with her dad on the road, outstrips her history teacher's --- and her sarcastic take on high school helps keep her from getting too bogged down in petty high school dramas. Hayley's wry observations may remind some readers of the narrator of SPEAK, who approached high school from a similar taxonomic perspective. Here she divides the world into two kinds of people, freaks (good) and zombies (bad) --- "Everyone is born a freak," notes Hayley. "Every newborn baby, wet and hungry and screaming, is a fresh-hatched freak who wants to have a good time and make the world a better place. . . . Most teenagers wind up in high school. And high school is where the zombification process becomes deadly."
Determined not to become a zombie, Hayley distances herself from conventional friendships and high school activities. But when the super smart (and equally good-looking) school newspaper editor, Finn, approaches her about doing some writing for the paper (and maybe also going on a date), Hayley tentatively enters into a relationship with him. But she remains terrified about showing Finn too much of herself, too much about her father. How can she explain that her dad is terrified of the simplest things, like highway overpasses and sudden noises? How can she tell Finn that her dad spends much of his time drunk or high to block out memories of the war? Or that he sometimes lashes out violently, unable to control his actions? Even when Finn reveals his own family complications, Hayley is reluctant to let him fully into her life.
But when Trish --- Hayley's dad's old girlfriend and the closest thing to a mother that Hayley can remember (her own mom died when Hayley was a baby) --- comes back into their lives, Hayley must cope with her own traumatic memories, her own response to painful experiences that she thought she had left behind her.
Laurie Halse Anderson is an expert at writing "problem novels" that go far beyond the problems they address. Here she explores the legacy of post-traumatic stress disorder, but she does so in the context of a strong, character-driven novel that also explores issues of trust, hope, and finding common bonds with others. THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY, although dark at times, also has plenty of moments of sardonic wit or outright humor, and it also has a sweet, realistic love story at its heart. Powerful, compassionate, and achingly authentic, THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY bravely addresses how long trauma can persist --- and how much help it requires to overcome.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2014