Laurie Halse Anderson is one of my favorite authors, and I recently had the chance to see her speak at a local bookstore. She talked about how her latest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory, was inspired by her own experiences growing up with a father suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While reading the book, I could definitely tell that it came from a personal place. In typical Anderson style, the writing is jarring and the emotions are raw. While it is not my favorite book of hers, it was definitely a fascinating and absorbing read.
Hayley Kincain has spent the last several years on the road with her father, Andy, who is suffering from PTSD after doing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The story begins when they settle down in their old hometown so Hayley can go to a proper school for her senior year. But things are anything but normal. Andy fluctuates between functioning at a minimal level and getting drunk, high, and blacking out. His erratic and dangerous behavior takes a toll on Hayley, who is never sure if she will come home to find a smiling dad, or possibly a dead one.
In the meantime, she reluctantly strikes up a relationship with Finn, a handsome, well-to-do editor of the school newspaper. However, they both have communication issues and are looking for an escape from reality, rather than someone to talk to about their messed up families. As her father gets worse, Hayley stops dealing with the other aspects of her life in order to take care of him. But it is clear that their situation cannot go on forever, and there must be a breaking point.
Above all, I really enjoyed the pace of this novel. Hayley’s father lives his life in a haze of normalcy until sudden visions of explosions and friends dying throw him off course and into paranoid rages or despondency. He is very unpredictable and erratic, and so is the book’s pace. There are moments of calm and then rising tension. There are several times when Hayley is just as paranoid as her father and is worried he might have hurt himself when he doesn’t answer his phone, isn’t at home, or has locked all the doors. At times the book felt like a ticking bomb in my hands, which was very appropriate considering its themes.
The relationship between Hayley and Finn was also a highlight of the novel. I think that Anderson mentioned this was her first time writing a love story, and she’s good at it! I loved seeing the first awkward inklings of a high school romance, and their banter was adorable. They constantly made up ridiculous answers to questions, probably in an attempt to avoid their harsh reality. (“Where did you live before you came here?” [Hayley] asked. “The moon,” [Finn] said smoothly. “We left because the place had no atmosphere.”) Their relationship provided some much-needed relief from the tension of that of Hayley and her father.
Hayley’s character wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but by the end I started to feel for her. Her narration is as unreliable as she is (she describes herself as a “bitch” but obviously cares deeply for people), but that’s partly what is interesting about being inside her mind. However, I really disliked the forced use of the metaphor referenced in the title. Obviously memories can be painful, especially when you have PTSD. But sometimes it felt like Anderson was yelling, “Look! Here’s a knife! It’s a metaphor for painful memories!” Every time Hayley or her father had a flashback, it started with the word “ripping.” If Anderson was really that attached to the metaphor, I would have liked to have seen it developed deeper and become more complex. At least a little more subtlety would have been nice.
Overall, I enjoyed reading The Impossible Knife of Memory because I knew very little about PTSD and its effects on families. I love Anderson’s raw and witty writing style, and how she isn’t afraid to approach tough topics. But there was still something missing in it for me. I would have liked a little more complexity and for it to resonate with me emotionally. I started the book expecting to finish it with a broken heart, but there is only a small crack.