The Impossible Knife of Memory: review

The Impossible Knife of Memory: reviewThe Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
Published by Viking on January 7, 2014
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 372
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Amazon • Goodreads

four-stars

For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.

I understand now why Laurie Halse Anderson is one of those writers readers never fail to keep track off. I read Speak several years ago and remember feeling how it stood stark naked amongst other books I had read before it. Anderson’s writing is poetic yet so daringly outspoken that you can’t help but stop and listen.

Anderson is famous (or infamous) for tackling varying degrees of heavy subjects. This may be her most ambitiously profound yet. It’s about Hayley Kincain. Daughter of Andy Kincain. Step-daughter of Trish. Homeschool-ed, truck-driving, cross-country traveling, socially-inept yet bad ass Hayley Kincain. Hayley enters her senior year in an actual school for the first time in her life. She and her father move into his childhood home, where she spent her early years living with Gramma. After her death, Hayley spent the next years criss-crossing the country as map navigator to her truck-driving father. An ex-soldier. A PTSD victim.

Anderson confronts a very serious, very difficult and harrowing issue and she shies from almost nothing. Hayley’s father was deployed to Iraq during the war and through a series of flashbacks, we are taken back to glimpse at snippets of his traumatic experience. Each flash of memory worsening and worsening until we need to put the book down, for a bit, to breathe because we realize again and again how much men and women are asked to bear when we send them to battle. They are lost and sacrificed almost before they ever even land on whatever unfamiliar soil they are assigned to…to what? To conquer? To fix? To help? All of the above?

Andy Kincain has seen unimaginable horrors. Death from all angles. Death in front of his eyes. Death as a slow, crawling comprehension of a very grave mistake. His soul is lashed with every breath he takes from another, with every breath he loses for himself. PTSD is unceasing and Andy is always falling. His condition is reflected on his daughter. Her fight-or-flight tendency, her crass sarcasms, her tendency to categorize people and situations between threat and action. She is smart and she has survival tactics.

Hayley isn’t perfect. I never expected her to be, mind, but in all honesty, even I sometimes wondered why a totally adorkable math joke-throwing, swim team hero was getting himself worked up over her. Sometimes. Because she’d do that thing where she’s so trying to be a stone cold freak but her heart is melting and then ours is too and we’re all gushing over Finn. Because he’s cute.

Off topic. The thing that impressed me most with her was how unflaggingly devoted she is with caring for her dad. Begging him to get help. Forgiving him his lapses. Wanting him to drink himself into unconsciousness so she can rest even for a night. Begging him again in the morning. She barks and she bites. No judgmental hand will lay a finger on her father.

Because he isn’t just her father. He is her only family. You can smell desperation on her. You can smell the blood and tears as she clings on whatever is left of him. Anderson maneuvers her readers through scenes of violence and affection between father and daughter, each meaning to tighten the bond between reader and character and it works. We find ourselves praying and angry, frustrated and giving up. 

This is a close dissection of a broken man. A man of war who cannot live with his sins…or achievements, depending on which angle you’re looking from. A man with post-traumatic stress disorder. A soldier left to himself; a soldier seemingly abandoned with no means to heal; seemingly abandoned by the organization who took enough responsibility to send him there but not enough when he returned. And a story of the daughter who carries his bones, desperately putting him back together.

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