For me high school was a mix of excitement and fear: excitement because of the unknown, and fear because of the same. It was four years of trying to figure out where I fit in while trying not to fit in, preparing to be something more than I was while doing my best to be less than I was. The best part of high school was when every once in a while someone noticed me for doing something positive instead of judging me for the things I couldn’t help.
What I have always loved about the best of Laurie Halse Anderson’s books is that she captures the zeitgeist of the high school experience like no other author I know. Ever since I first read Speak, and later Twisted, and Prom, I realized that a woman who probably had a pretty normal high school experience understood me, and her main characters were always flawed in some elemental way. It was those flaws that really tied them to me, and to their experience in ways that I had never seen before from young adult fiction.
That’s what also stands out about her most recent novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory. It’s her portrayal of her primary characters as deeply troubled and in need of redemption and/or counseling that draws me in and makes me want to read further. In this novel it’s all about Hayley and her father, two wandering souls who have seen too much and who have been through things neither of them wants to remember. So they repress those memories and live lives that aren’t fulfilling, then they wonder why they aren’t fulfilled.
Hayley doesn’t fit into her school environment, picking fights with other students, antagonizing her teachers, and not doing her homework. She calls the other students “zombies,” and says that they don’t DO anything. Yet, when we see her she too is avoiding every opportunity she’s given, until she meets a boy named Finn, a character who is also deeply flawed, and I like to think they save each other. Or they would if Hayley would just let herself feel. The plot twists and turns with the turns (mostly bad) that her father takes, and the responsibility she feels toward him and his issues that stem from what happened to him in war.
This knife of memory truly is impossible, and Halse Anderson does a great job of showing in the narrative (and through flashbacks) exactly how sharp it can be when it presses against their minds in dreams and forces them to remember. Can anyone truly get through to them, or are they stuck in this perpetual merry-go-round of emotions, and the subsequent dulling of those emotions, in order to exist? Those are the overarching questions Halse Anderson makes her readers ask as the plot unfolds and takes us with it.
If there’s one thing I didn’t like about the novel it’s that the characters apart from Hayley, her dad, and Finn seem under-realized, even if it seems like their part in the story is important. For example, Hayley’s best friend Gracie has some addiction problems that are delved into for about half a chapter, but nothing comes of it, almost like it was a separate story that needs its own book. It’s almost like the author decided she only had enough space to hint at some of these other issues without either resolving them or bringing them to some kind of conclusion, positive or negative.
Nevertheless I enjoyed the book immensely, particularly the parts where Hayley is introspective instead of just letting herself be a zombie and going with her own self-imposed flow that gets her absolutely nowhere, and the ending will floor you. That’s another thing I can count on from Halse Anderson, an ending worthy of the term.
I give this novel FOUR AND A HALF stars.