The Impossible Knife of Memory is the first novel by Laurie Halse Anderson that I’ve read since Speak back when I was in middle school. I remember flying through that one and how impressed I was with the way she handled the difficult subject matter of Speak. Anderson shows, once again, that when she tackles difficult subject matter in a young adult novel, she doesn’t dumb it down or sugar coat it.
Hayley and her father have recently returned to the home where he grew up to settle down after years of living on the road in a big rig. The change means that Hayley must adjust to the regulated life of public schooling. A senior in high school, at first it seems like Hayley has little respect for the rules and enjoys causing trouble. And while some of that is true, the reasons behind how and why she acts that way at school lie deep in the past that she suppresses in herself each day as she does what she can to keep the past at bay for her father at home.
An Afghanistan and Iraq war vet, Hayley’s father suffers from more than just a bad leg. His PTSD makes it almost impossible for him to hold a steady job. Having tried and failed his fair share of prescription medications, he has taken to self-medicating with alcohol and weed. Hayley does what she can to take care of her father but his mood swings only seem to be getting worse as the past begins to creep in closer, dragging them both down.
Anderson does a fantastic job of displaying the harsh realities, the ups and downs of dealing with a disorder like PTSD. The small things that trigger explosive episodes; the hopeful days that can make it seem like the worst is passed; the middling days that are endured and those that are survived; and the depression and helplessness that spread beyond the PTSD sufferer into those who try to help.
Though Anderson does a good job with a lot of the practicalities of high school like homework, exams, and the hoop jumping that comprises applying to college, the book was lacking in some of the clique-y aspects of high school. There are a few brief scenes but for the most part there is little time spent on characters and incidents at the school that aren’t related to the administrators and Hayley’s sparring matches with them. Given her behavior and the fact that she’s a relative newcomer to the school, I think that there would have been more clashes with her fellow students adding to her stress level. If anything in the book gets the sugar coating treatment, it’s that. Even her relationships with her few close friends are a little more fairy-tale than realistic; I feel that there was a bigger subplot with her friend Gracie that was abandoned but which would have add greater depth to that character.
Ultimately though, what drives the book is the struggling father/daughter relationship that both yearn to fix but which neither of them know where to start. The plot builds fantastically and the climactic scene delivers, but the wrap-up afterwards feels a little rushed and too fairy-tale for the gritty realities displayed in the rest of the novel. It does make me want to go through some of Anderson’s other books sometime to see if there are any others I’ll be interested in. Why I didn’t keep a closer eye out for them after Speak, I don’t know, but I will be sure to do so in the future.