Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Hayley has spent her formative years on the road with her father. He is a sometimes-employed semi-driver and suffers from PTSD due to his time in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two of them take care of each other, and so far haven't needed anyone else. Now though, her father has gotten it into his head that Hayley needs to spend her senior year in a real high school. He moves them back to his childhood home, and Hayley has to go to school after years away from that world. 

A lot happens in this book. Seriously, a lot. Hayley has to struggle through the usual teenage issues of being the new kid in school, a guidance counselor stalking her about the future, and trying to make sense of pre-calculus. In this small town, everyone's cliques have been formed since kindergarten. Hayley is absorbed into a clique of sorts with the girl down the street, Gracie, and her boyfriend. Through them, she meets Finn, a nerdy, sweet boy who is determined to have Hayley write for the (nonexistent) school paper, even when she says no. 

All of those issues are pretty normal. What isn't normal is at home; her father bounces back and forth between good days and bad days. When his days are bad, they are really bad. He can't keep a job, frequently forgets to eat, drinks too much, and often turns to less than legal means of release. His depression is all-encompassing, and threatens to take Hayley down too. It is a lot for a teenage girl to handle on her own, and despite appearances to the contrary, Hayley spends much of the book living in a constant state of fear.

At times, this book is hard to read. I couldn't help but feel for Hayley, who tries so hard to maintain a delicate balance of teenage normalcy while managing to care for her father. Her father, who clearly loves Hayley, does not function as her parent most of the time, which makes it difficult to like him. Passages told from his point of view give a unique light to the story, making him a bit more sympathetic to the reader, while exposing the terror that haunts his own memories. Everything that is happening with Hayley's father is clearly beyond her control, yet she doesn't see it right in front of her. Hayley has blocked out a lot of her own past because it hurts too much to think of a time before her father was the way he is now, which frequently makes her seem naive. 

What I really loved about this book was that all of the teenagers had problems. Hayley makes some good friends who stand by her when she needs them, but not a single one was completely happy. Despite this, all of them had happy times over the course of the book; their own problems didn't make their lives stop. However, there were times when a friend was so consumed with their own issue they couldn't attend to the problems of others, which felt realistic to me. 

Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a timely, brave novel. It tackles issues that I haven't really encountered before in a teen novel of this type, but does so in an approachable way. Hayley is a brave character who has a lot put on her shoulders at a young age. She is easy to relate to, but definitely not a cookie-cutter teen. The book doesn't try to have a "happy ending," but Hayley does have to come to terms with her past, present, and future, without giving in to the darkness that plagues her father. An excellent, if difficult read. 

If you enjoy books that tackle tough issues like these, I'd recommend reading others by Laurie Halse Anderson: Speak, Wintergirls, and Twisted. A good readalike would be Just Listen by Sarah Dessen or The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky


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