Rating: 5/5 stars.
As someone who wrote an entire research paper on the importance of YA fiction and the genius of Laurie Halse Anderson, I own up to my bias. The Impossible Knife of Memory captures so much of what I love about young-adult contemporary and realistic fiction. It possesses a witty and cynical narrator, it delves into a real and painful issue, and it offers a nuanced yet meaningful message of hope.
Hayley Kincaid divides the human race into two types of people: the freaks and the zombies. Her lack of faith in her fellow man makes sense – she spent the past five years on the road with her father, Andy, a war vet who resorts to alcohol and drugs to escape his demons. He decides that they should move back into his hometown, and Hayley starts up at a normal high school, except nothing in her life is normal. Not Andy’s PTSD that still plagues him and leaves him screaming in his sleep, not Gracie, her best friend who suffers family issues of her own, and definitely not Finn, the attractive nerd with a disarming smile and a host of secrets. As Hayley’s bond with Finn escalates, she fights the memories that threaten to rise up and tear her apart again and again.
Hayley’s voice stuck out to me from the first page. Smart, disillusioned, and laced with acid, she reminded me of myself in high school, with just a bit more bite. Anderson writes in the first person perspective of a teenager with amazing skill. Adolescents and adults alike will relate to Hayley when she reflects upon the pointlessness of teenage drama, when she ruminates on how the other kids at school must be so lucky to lead such blessed lives, and when she refuses to put with what she finds stupid and mundane on a daily basis.
But beneath all of Hayley’s snide remarks lies a pain-ridden emotional undercurrent. Anderson’s flashback snippets entrench us not only in Andy’s experience as a soldier, but it allows us to view Hayley’s suffering too. Raised without her birth mother, abandoned as a child, and more responsible for her father than he is for her, Hayley represses her trauma and deals with a ticking time bomb every day: not just her father’s mood swings, but her own deep mental wounds. In The Impossible Knife of Memory Anderson makes sense of a messy teenage mindset while still offering a flawed yet realistic ending, rife with the seeds of a better future.
I adored the romance between Hayley and Finn. Now that I’m 18 I guess I have to say I wish I “had” a boyfriend like Finn in high school – even though that makes me feel old, their relationship supplied me with all the feelings. Their snarky banter kept me entertained and their deeper conversations left me in awe of Anderson’s character development. Neither of them are perfect and their relationship isn’t all roses and rainbows, but in the end, the trials and tribulations make it all the more worthwhile.
Highly recommended to fans of Laurie Halse Anderson and young-adult realistic or contemporary fiction, as well as those interested in a book that deals with PTSD. Anderson has set the bar high for 2014 and I can only hope that other authors live up to the challenge.