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Book Review – The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

I am sincerely afraid my review will not do justice to this book. Scratch that. I am completely certain that my review will not do justice to this book.

Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have quit their life on the road to return home for her senior year of high school. Their past years were spent traveling – Andy driving long haul trucks, Hayley doing home school. Sort of. Andy is determined that Hayley will spend her senior year of high school establishing a good record so she will have a chance of getting into college. Hayley isn’t sure she wants to go to college. This would be enough conflict for most YA novels, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface. Hayley and Andy are barely hanging on, both of them devastated by Andy’s post traumatic stress disorder, a result of his time spent in the military.

Throughout the story, we watch, impotent, as Haley and Andy’s lives gradually crumble. There are periods of rebuilding, attempts at healing and a fresh start, but everything inexorably falls apart. And it is devastating, though ultimately hopeful.

The thing is, I don’t remember when I first heard about post traumatic stress disorder. I do remember, however, thinking, “Oh! Well that explains a lot of things, especially the lives of all of those Vietnam veterans.” And then I basically cataloged it away as an explanation of the behavior and actions of anyone who had been through a traumatic experience. I never really stopped to consider the impact of PTSD on friends and family members. I live a relatively sheltered life; I never really stopped to consider anything at all. But this book – this book stopped me cold.

Ragged and raw and realistic, but also intimate, personal, and incredibly nuanced, Anderson’s story of one family’s struggle with PTSD is brilliant and moving.

You can learn more about PTSD by visiting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs web site

Karen’s take:
I read this yesterday while driving cross country from Ohio to Texas.  At one point near the end, I completely just started hardcore bawling. My husband and two kids were all, “are you okay?” This was such a moving and realistic portrait of truly broken people.  Not just Hayley and her dad, but the supporting cast as well – including a great boyfriend, Finn, whose family is being torn apart by a drug addicted sister.  And then there is Gracie, a best friend whose family is falling apart.  These are the teens I know, the teens I work with.  This is their story, these are their struggles.

Hayley is trying desperately to keep very dark secrets because where she is – as terrifying as it is – is nothing compared to the unknown of being removed from her father.  She reminds me in ways of the MC in Rotters by Daniel Kraus, also trying to survive a desperate situation and keep it a secret.  Or the MC in Don’t You Dare Read This, Mr. Dunphrey.

And Hayley, she has been burned by life. Abandoned at every turn.  So being in a relationship is hard.  Here is where there is some real nuance to Anderson’s storytelling; Hayley is often an unlikable main character – she even states that she is being a bitch as she is in fact being one – but she can’t get too close or be too honest.  Her life is a tapestry loosely woven and gentling tugging even one string of truth will make it all unravel.  It is such fantastic storytelling and character development.

Also, she made me ugly cry.  It is possible that the only other author who has done that is Gayle Forman in If I Stay.  But when the things that you know must eventually happen do in fact happen, your gut is sliced open and your heart is wrenched out and damn it, you wanted to be wrong for Hayley and her dad.  

Hayley’s dad, so very, very broken.  I loved him.  This is such a beautiful portrayal of what it is to be haunted by memories, to wake up sweating in the night because the blade of memory keeps twisting, to try and self-medicate the memories and heartache away.  This is some A+ storytelling.  And such an important story because so many of our Veterans are coming home damaged, we need to do more for them.