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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Michelle Reviews: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

When I received a copy of Laurie Halse Anderson’s newest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory, I also received a letter from her about just how personal this novel was. A new novel by Anderson will always be cause for excitement but reading this letter raised my anticipation of TIKOM to eleven. The novel is about a young girl dealing with the fallout of her father’s sufferings with PTSD, and, as Anderson explains, she suffered in the same way. The horrors her father witnessed at Dachua have haunted him and the rest of their family since 1945. In her letter Anderson writes “while this book is in many ways more personal for me, I believe it is universal in that it is for anyone who had to grow up too fast, or who found the adult world utterly baffling.”

Our narrator, Hayley Kincaid, opens the novel by showing us exactly how disconnected she is from her world. She is in detention (reading Slaughterhouse-Five, probably the most famous book about PTSD) and railing against everything. Life, authority, all of it. She has created for herself a black and white world of freaks and zombies; freaks are the dangerous ones who feel life and thus sadness. Zombies turn off feeling to fit in…to be happy. Here’s the thing about Laurie Halse Anderson…this part of the novel that doesn’t really seem integral to the plot explains so much about Hayley and teenagers as a whole and turns out to be the major message of the novel. Hayley, like all the sad, lonely kids, has created a dichotomy that she can understand. She can’t be happy because she won’t be plastic (to appropriate a term from Mean Girls); she won’t be zombiefied. It takes the bulk of the novel for the real lesson to sink in; we all have problems and it takes sticking together to work through them. There are no freaks and there are no zombies; we’re all just pitiful, pitiable humans.

Hayley has established herself as a hardened individual, but we quickly see just how afraid she is. The consequences of Hayley’s father’s PTSD (everything from substance abuse, impulsive anger, deep depression, and on) have been affecting her since the death of her grandmother (Hayley’s mother died when she was young. Her life is a tumult of loses). As Hayley nears her high school graduation the disruptive manner of their life together comes to a head.

The novel focuses on Hayley and her father, but it is a novel about letting people in and Anderson has peopled with characters capable of giving love to Hayley and those who need her love as well. She watches as the perfect life of Gracie, her only friend, falls apart. She sees the effects of substance abuse on the family of Finn and new friend and possible love interest. She witnesses the return of her stepmother. At first Hayley refuses to acknowledge the pain of the people in her life. Not through any selfish means but by lack of understanding. Their pain is their own fault, or something they can control or ignore. The pain Hayley’s father (and in turn Hayley) carries around cannot be ignored. He carries the pain of everyone who died in combat. When Hayley opens herself up to the depth of the pain in the lives of others she can finally let them in.
At the end of the novel after Hayley and her father have danced with death, she is able to look at Finn and see the possibilities of life. Of creating something new instead of living in constant fear of the past. The novel ends with Finn telling Hayley, “when we get scared or lonely or confused, we’ll pull out these memories and wrap them around us and they’ll make us feel safe … and strong.” Finally, Hayley is able to create new memories that allow her to grow.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is a sad novel but it is full of the hope that we can place in each other. Like Anderson’s groundbreaking Speak, TIKOM tells a story that we don’t really want to hear. It tells a story that we need to hear. And Anderson tells it wonderfully.  

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