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The Impossible Knife of Memory

book coverThe Impossible Knife of Memory, Laurie Halse Anderson
Viking, January 2014
Reviewed from final copy

Addiction, depression, PTSD; these weighty problems are the main focus of Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, recently longlisted for the National Book Award. There’s definitely some great writing here that is worth talking about; Anderson’s ability to sustain an intense narrative in one character’s voice is admirable. But that’s just one element out of many criteria that the RealCommittee will look at if this book is up for discussion. Any book with four stars by a former Printz honor winner is certainly going to have some attention but ultimately I found this book moving, yet flawed.

A lot of The Impossible Knife of Memory’s effectiveness hinges on whether or not you invest in Hayley as a narrator and a character. Her voice is the emotional core of the novel and drives the story. Anderson does good work with Hayley. On page one we know her tough shell is going to crack—people with that much spikiness are usually just protecting their vulnerabilities—and Anderson doesn’t take long to reveal Hayley’s weaknesses. She’s a complicated character who might easily have slipped into a stereotype but Anderson is able to keep her realistic through the first person narration. We’re in her head so we get to experience all of her complicated, perplexing, and sometimes contradictory thoughts.

None of the other characters are quite as compelling. Finn, Hayley’s boyfriend, has potential to be interesting with his slightly sarcastic sense of humor and intelligence, but he ends up fulfilling a role as “good boyfriend” more than he ever feels like an interesting character on his own. Hayley’s father Andy, is more nuanced but his actions in the denouement didn’t seem to follow the logic that Anderson sets up. (I don’t want to spoil things here, but let’s talk in the comments.)

Meanwhile, the italicized chapters in Andy’s voice are well-written and heartbreaking, but they take power away from Haley’s narrative. They do too much to illustrate exactly what he’s dealing with. His journey throughout the novel certainly serves as a parallel to Hayley’s but those insights distance us slightly from our main narrator. It’s the fact that Haley doesn’t know what her father is reliving in those moments that makes them all the more terrifying for her, and by extensions, us as readers.

In terms of voice and style, here’s an example from page 388 of what worked:

Crickets sang. Bats chirped. Mosquitoes feasted. We talked for hours, dancing around the fact that we were leaving in the morning. He was going to travel north by northeast, one hundred eighty miles. I was headed southwest, seventy-four miles.

Anderson writes simply and beautifully. The rhythm of those sentences reads like a song and the imagery created with just a few words is vivid.

Just two pages later (the penultimate page in the book) an example of what didn’t work thematically:

The truth was that it hurt too much to think about how nice it had been when Gramma braided my hair, or when Trish taught me how to ride a bike, or when Dad read me a book. I had shut the door on my memories because they hurt. Without my memories, I’d turned into one of the living dead.

Technically, the paragraph is fine. The problem is that this is it; the end of the novel. Anderson doesn’t need to tell me the lessons learned, because I’ve already seen Hayley learn them. These ideas are so well established that even before this point, they’ve become redundant.

Those four stars didn’t appear out of nowhere though, and a selection for the National Book Award longlist doesn’t just drop out of the sky; so what about this book is catching people’s attention? Is it the timely and difficult topic of PTSD or are people just really connecting with Hayley? Something else? Talk it out below!

 

P.S.: I know this is a nitpick, but Swevenbury. I’m just going to leave that out there.

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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. Joy, thanks for putting this so eloquently. I liked The Impossible Knife of Memory but it just didn’t overwhelm me with amazing-ness (like many of Anderson’s previous novels have.) Like Melinda in “Speak”– Hayley drove me crazy with her emotional shut-down. But it started to get to be too much for me. In “Knife” the reasons for Hayley’s trauma felt over-done – I didn’t need to be hit over the head with it. The chapters told from Hayley’s father’s perspective were well told but not necessary, I could have gotten it all from his actions and Haley’s voice alone.

  2. Well said Joy. This is the first Anderson novel I’ve really loved since Speak but it did definitely have problems. From personal experience I also think reading the book after going through traumatic events might be hard for a lot of readers because Hayley’s problems hit too close to home.

    My main issue with this book was that a lot of it–particularly with Finn–felt like an escapist fantasy rather than real life. Partly that works to make the rest of the story bearable but it works more to take away from the authenticity of the rest of the story.

    I personally liked the chapters from Hayley’s father and thought they were one of the more effective parts (they also nicely countered the escapist aspects in other parts of the story, like Swevenbury!). While they tread some of the same territory I thought these chapters did an excellent job of mirroring what Hayley is going through. Yes, PTSD is an obvious part of the story but the idea that it is something that is happening to her father AND Hayley at the same time.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      That’s an interesting take on Andy’s chapters. You’re absolutely right, they do mirror Hayley’s experience with memory, but it’s actually more like a refraction. Hayley suppresses her memories while Andy can’t escape his. I think I would have appreciated those sections more if that duality was explored more deeply.

  3. Karyn Silverman says:

    I found that this one collapsed under the weight of it’s MESSAGE, to borrow an idea from the P&P; there were, as Joy notes, things that worked, and there was some genuine emotional investment when I read it, but there was also the sense that this was a book with a purpose and the purpose sometimes overshadowed the rest of it. That doesn’t make it a bad book, but it leads to some significant flaws. Andy’s late-book actions, the amount of time it takes Hayley to come to terms with Trish/her concealed memories — these details struck me as there to make the message work at least as much as they were there for any organic reason, which I’ll argue is a level of flawed that knocks this right out of Printz consideration.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Oh! Also the absolute authorial intrusion about the funding cuts and libraries, early on, in a school Hayley is new to and doesn’t really care about, but suddenly she’s spouting politics for a few sentences in her head? It was Anderson talking to the reader through the character’s voice, and it was early enough to break my trust; I was looking for the author after that and no longer had faith in the character.

  4. Mary Lou White says:

    For the most part, I liked this book very much – how it explored memory and the impact it has on how we live. What did not feel real to me was the relationship between Hayley and Finn. She was so unpleasant and unhappy, I could not understand why he pursued her. It felt more like a plot device than something that would actually happen in an otherwise gritty novel.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      *like* I am so tired of attraction/affection as plot device and it’s all over YA. Can’t we trust teens to grow without romantic relationships?

  5. Barbara Moon says:

    I thought that there were interesting pieces. I liked the use of the name Finn – interesting in relation to Hayley’s fear of swimming. It is Finn who helps her swim through the dangerous waters of her life. But these choice bits were overshadowed the easy-to-predict events, relatively flat supporting characters, and as Karyn states MESSAGE. Not much shading or nuance.

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