SLJ Blog Network
18079527 The Impossible Knife of MemoryThe Impossible Knife of Memory, Laurie Halse Anderson
Viking, January 2014
Reviewed from final copy

Addiction, depression, PTSD; these weighty problems are the main focus of Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, recently longlisted for the National Book Award. There’s definitely some great writing here that is worth talking about; Anderson’s ability to sustain an intense narrative in one character’s voice is admirable. But that’s just one element out of many criteria that the RealCommittee will look at if this book is up for discussion. Any book with four stars by a former Printz honor winner is certainly going to have some attention but ultimately I found this book moving, yet flawed.

A lot of The Impossible Knife of Memory’s effectiveness hinges on whether or not you invest in Hayley as a narrator and a character. Her voice is the emotional core of the novel and drives the story. Anderson does good work with Hayley. On page one we know her tough shell is going to crack—people with that much spikiness are usually just protecting their vulnerabilities—and Anderson doesn’t take long to reveal Hayley’s weaknesses. She’s a complicated character who might easily have slipped into a stereotype but Anderson is able to keep her realistic through the first person narration. We’re in her head so we get to experience all of her complicated, perplexing, and sometimes contradictory thoughts.

None of the other characters are quite as compelling. Finn, Hayley’s boyfriend, has potential to be interesting with his slightly sarcastic sense of humor and intelligence, but he ends up fulfilling a role as “good boyfriend” more than he ever feels like an interesting character on his own. Hayley’s father Andy, is more nuanced but his actions in the denouement didn’t seem to follow the logic that Anderson sets up. (I don’t want to spoil things here, but let’s talk in the comments.)

Meanwhile, the italicized chapters in Andy’s voice are well-written and heartbreaking, but they take power away from Haley’s narrative. They do too much to illustrate exactly what he’s dealing with. His journey throughout the novel certainly serves as a parallel to Hayley’s but those insights distance us slightly from our main narrator. It’s the fact that Haley doesn’t know what her father is reliving in those moments that makes them all the more terrifying for her, and by extensions, us as readers.

In terms of voice and style, here’s an example from page 388 of what worked:

Crickets sang. Bats chirped. Mosquitoes feasted. We talked for hours, dancing around the fact that we were leaving in the morning. He was going to travel north by northeast, one hundred eighty miles. I was headed southwest, seventy-four miles.

Anderson writes simply and beautifully. The rhythm of those sentences reads like a song and the imagery created with just a few words is vivid.

Just two pages later (the penultimate page in the book) an example of what didn’t work thematically:

The truth was that it hurt too much to think about how nice it had been when Gramma braided my hair, or when Trish taught me how to ride a bike, or when Dad read me a book. I had shut the door on my memories because they hurt. Without my memories, I’d turned into one of the living dead.

Technically, the paragraph is fine. The problem is that this is it; the end of the novel. Anderson doesn’t need to tell me the lessons learned, because I’ve already seen Hayley learn them. These ideas are so well established that even before this point, they’ve become redundant.

Those four stars didn’t appear out of nowhere though, and a selection for the National Book Award longlist doesn’t just drop out of the sky; so what about this book is catching people’s attention? Is it the timely and difficult topic of PTSD or are people just really connecting with Hayley? Something else? Talk it out below!

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing