Allison's Book Bag

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Posted on: February 6, 2015

Like many others, I have been a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson since reading her debut young adult novel Speak. Now from Anderson comes another social issue novel that is receiving critical acclaim. The Impossible Knife of Memory is about post-traumatic stress disorder and veterans, a topic close to Anderson’s heart. When Anderson was in middle school, her life changed dramatically due to her father’s battle with PTSD. With The Impossible Knife of Memory, Anderson also for the first time includes a love interest. Although at times the novel fell flat for me, I did over all enjoy this best-selling title from Anderson.

Perhaps because adolescence is the time when the imperfections of adults becomes most notable, if parents make an appearance in young adult realistic fiction, their role seems to be that of the dysfunctional parent. Case in point, both parents in The Impossible Knife of Memory are alcoholics. Initially this turned me off. Anderson ultimately won me over in a couple of ways, one being her gripping portrayal of post-traumatic stress disorder. To cope with his memories of war Hayley’s dad turns to alcohol and drugs. These addictions might spark his short-temper that results in job losses. However, it’s just as likely that the battlefield memories, many of which are interspersed as stand-alone chapters written in italics, fuel his inabilities to copy with daily responsibilities. Most definitely, the nightmares in his head are what lead to his shooting up appliances, furniture, and eventually the family’s entire living room. Anderson also won me over, because this isn’t just another teen novel about a loser parent. Despite all the grief Hayley’s dad heaps upon the family, it’s clear from Hayley’s actions how much she loves her dad. It’s also clear how much the dad wants to make things right, feels remorse for his actions, and loves his daughter. As for Hayley’s mom, all I’ll say is that relationships are complex. Anderson does a nice job of recognizing that while parents might be flawed, this doesn’t mean teens should discredit them.

No matter the genre, love also seems to typical fare for young adult fiction. Up until now, Anderson was one of the few exceptions one could depend upon to give full attention to other teen matters. While I feel disappointed that Anderson has joined the masses, I do have to give her credit for creating a believable love story. The romance is a little sudden, but is also reasonably justified. Hayley’s best friend introduces her to the newspaper editor, from the mistaken belief that Hayley might want to write for the paper. The romance also develops pretty quickly, but again is reasonably justified. Hayley needs help in math; Finn needs articles to keep the newspaper afloat. I also like that Finn isn’t the stereotypical romantic date. He isn’t a hunky football player. He isn’t even the most popular guy in school. In contrast, he’s kind of skinny, kind of nerdy, while also being cute and sweet. I also appreciate that when the going gets tough, at times Hayley bails and at times Finn bails. Naturally, they never stay completely broken up, but it adds to the realism that they both need time to know how many challenges they’re willing to face together.

As you can see, most everything worked for me. Yet as I said at the start, at times, The Impossible Knife of Memory also fell flat. Is it just the hype surrounding it? Is it that perhaps I wasn’t really in the mood for another teen angst story? Either of those could be true. However, it might also be that I felt a need for a little more positive portrayal of families. Sure, families are flawed. It just seems that those in Anderson’s novel are flawed to the extreme. Not only does Hayley’s parents drink, but her best friend’s parents hate each other so much that they can’t be in the same room without a fight, and her boyfriend’s family is dealing with a drug-addicted daughter. Really? Are there no even semi-happy families?

I also tired of all the negative references to school policies. They fed too much into the angst of the story. Take for example, the fact that Hayley’s boyfriend wants to save the school newspaper, which was due to be cut because of financial constraints. While this is a realistic scenario, the problem I have is that when the paper actually does get cut, Anderson just drops that plot line. This leads me to view it as a contrivance, intended to bring Hayley and Finn together. Alternatively, given all the other school-bashing lines, it seems as times if the references are more that of Anderson’s own opinion than that of her characters and their situations.

When my husband and I were trying this year to decide what young adult book to both read, The Impossible Knife of Memory was a top pick. Minor flaws aside, Anderson remains one of the best for writing about anxiety and depression in adolescents. As such, she remains a vital voice for teens.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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