Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Genre: YA Fiction
ISBN: 0-67-001209-2
Published: 2014, Viking Juvenile
Purchase: Amazon,  River’s End Bookstore (autographed)

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Main Characters:
Hayley, her father, Finn, Gracie, Trish

Synopsis: This story follows a daughter and her PTSD-ravaged war veteran father as they cease trekking the country in an 18-wheeler and settle down in their old hometown. Hayley has been home-schooled for a number of years, but her father wants her to have a normal senior year, graduate, and go to college. She just wants to make sure her father is okay.

Memorable Quotes: 

  • I turned the page in Slaughterhouse Five, a forbidden book at Belmont because we were too young to read about soldiers swearing and bombs dropping and bodies blowing up and war sucking.
  • I swallowed the fear. It’s always there– fear– and if you don’t stay on top of it, you’ll drown. I swallowed again and stood tall, shoulders broad, arms loose. I was balanced, ready to move. My body said, “Yeah, you’re bigger and stronger, but if you touch this, I will hurt you.”
  • I’d given him bits and pieces of my peculiar life, but colored softer and funnier than they had been. I’d painted my dad as Don Quixote in a semi, on a quest for philosophical truths and the best cup of coffee in the nation.
  • “The world is crazy. You need a license to drive a car and go fishing. You don’t need a license to start a family. Two people have sex and bam! Perfectly innocent kid is born whose life will be screwed up by her parents forever.” [Gracie] stood up carefully. “And you can’t do a damn thing about it.”
  • I just knew that I wanted to push him away from me more than I wanted to hold him close.
  • Is there anything worse than making your father cry?

Review: I’ve always been a huge fan of Laurie Halse Anderson. I read Speak in ninth grade. I was in chemistry class and I didn’t learn a thing that day because I was completely absorbed. (I don’t know how I didn’t get in trouble.) I finished the book and all the lights seemed brighter, all the contrasts darker. I read Wintergirls last summer; I’m not sure why I didn’t review it here. I probably thought I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.

That’s how I feel about The Impossible Knife of Memory. It evokes feelings in you that you can’t describe, the kind that you can only express by hurling the book at your best friend and telling her to read it so you can commiserate together. There are how many words in the English language, and I can’t string any together?

Hayley hasn’t had an easy life. Her mother died when Hayley was very young; her father never speaks of her. While her father was off at war, she was raised by her Grandmother for a while, and then when she died, Trish entered the picture. And then, a few years later, left the picture. That’s when Hayley and her father started traveling the country. Sometimes her dad would feel like settling down, so they’d stop for a while.

Hayley’s father is completely ravaged by PTSD. It’s never mentioned what war he was in, but if the story parallels real life, then it’d be The War on Terror. (Which is, of course, still going on.) He’s afraid of bridges. He’s afraid of toll booths. He’s afraid of himself.

I really liked that the story gave us flashbacks from his perspective, even though the book is told from Hayley’s. It really helps you to understand what he’s dealing with. We see Hayley struggling, trying to hold the two of them together, but you don’t really understand how bad it is until you can get inside his head. You learn why he’s afraid of bridges. Why he’s afraid of himself.

Her father doesn’t cope with therapy and prescription drugs, though. He copes with weed and alcohol and other sorts of destructive behavior. Arrested again? Time to put life back in the semi. But Hayley’s senior year is coming, and as absent-minded as he can be, he does still want the best for his family. They move into the old family home and Hayley starts attending school like a normal girl.

As main of a character as Finn is, their love story is very secondary to the story, I think. Obviously, the real story is between her and her dad. Finn is her helper, her lover, her confidante. I liked that about the story, though. It’s realistic. So many authors seem to think introducing another romantic lead instantly solves every problem the other main character could ever have. But that’s not true, as we know from real life. Her moments with him are sharp and crisp, creating good memories to replace the bad ones that she won’t allow herself to remember. But sometimes the poison still slips through…

I’d like to expand on a quote I listed above, because I think it’s my favorite section of the book (and made me cry):

Is there anything worse than watching your father cry? He’s supposed to be the grown-up, the all-powerful grown-up, especially if he’s a soldier. When I was a kid, I watched him work out, scaling walls, lifting guys bigger than he was, running miles in the heat wearing full gear and carrying extra ammo. My dad was a superhero who made the world safe. He went overseas with his troops and chased the bad guys out of the mountains so that little kids over there could go to school and to the library and use the playground the way I did at home. The first time I saw him cry wasn’t so bad because he still had metal rods sticking into his leg. He was in pain. I understood that. After they pulled out the rods, after Trish left, I’d wake up at night hearing him sob, sniff like a child, like me, tears coming fast and mixing with snot. He’d try to keep quiet, but sometimes the sadness came over him loud as a thunderstorm. Scared the shit out of me, like riding a roller coaster and feeling your seat belt snap just as the track turns you upside down.

My father wasn’t in the military, but he was a “military brat” (as they’re called), and I have much the same feelings about him as Hayley does, I think. He was always a pillar of strength, not emotion. But when he’d snap, it was as though the world’s largest rubber band had been twisting and twisting and finally it couldn’t hold itself together and would just explode. It doesn’t matter, though. You still love him. You still hope. You get scared for yourself and then… you get scared for him. You hope he’ll change. You hope he’ll get better.

When the story ends, everything isn’t wrapped up, which I like. Everything isn’t magically fixed. Hayley is still afraid of drowning. Her father is still afraid of bridges. But you’re left with an imprint of hope, that the worst has passed: things can only get better from here.

Rating: ★★★★½

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