The Impossible Knife of Memory/Laurie Halse Anderson: Reflections

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I respect young adult authors who:

* take a stand
* remain engaged
* recognize the sublime intelligence of teens
* believe that stories written for younger readers have a responsibility to do more than simply pass the time
* understand that there are few things more powerful than books that intelligently address the real stuff that goes down in private corners of the world

All of which is to say that I respect Laurie Halse Anderson. She is versatile—writing historical novels and contemporary novels, sequels and stand-alone tales. She is, as well, there for her legions of readers—real, centered, and ever-vigilant. And she doesn't, from what I can tell, believe in easy. Her tales are many-layered, never squeamish, planfully raw.

The Impossible Knife of Memory, due out from Viking in January,  was sent to me by dear Jessica Shoffel, with whom I had worked on Small Damages. Jess's enthusiasm for this novel is tremendous, and I understand why, for at its heart lie concerns about post-traumatic stress disorder, child responsibilities for unwell parents, the impact of war on families, the impact of repressed memories, and the impact of kind, tall, skinny boys who actually do want to be what and whom they believe good men should be, which is to say protective, patient, and often selfless.

Hayley Kincain is spending her senior year in one run-down house (as opposed to the truck her dad has been driving around), in high school (as opposed to the independent study she's been used to), and in the company of a handful of newish friends (as opposed to essentially alone). It's a lot of new to deal with, and there's a backdrop of trouble—her dad's psychological trauma following a few turns of war duty, her missing mom, her seemingly unreliable almost step-mother, and her own eruptive memories of childhood traumas and losses. Hayley's unhappiness is palpable. It is relieved, in places, by this new boy named Finn. It returns as the world encroaches and threatens. It forces Hayley to finally look deep within herself.

Despite the dark material, there's humor here—the kind of sly, sarcastic rat-a-tat that goes on between bright kids in trying circumstances. Finn is about as perfect as a young man can be, and as Hayley warms to him she finds the brightest places within herself—puts to best use her intelligence and heart. The snapshots of war as presented through the father's italicized memories are shocking and also shockingly beautifully wrought. There, we say as we read, is what it must be like to go to war, to return from war, to find war inside one's dreams.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is searing, in its way. It is important, in Laurie Halse Anderson's inimitable way.


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