The Impossible Knife of Memory: review

March 11, 2014 2014, 4 star books, contemporary, K., realistic fiction 38 ★★★★

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
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.

An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

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38 Responses to “The Impossible Knife of Memory: review”

  1. Summer/Sunny

    I’ve eyed Anderson before and wondered if her books would be TOO gritty for me and while this deals with a tough issue, I know I need to read it. Hayley sounds like the type of MC that you could root for until the very end and have the perfect combination of sympathy and flaws. She’s tough, but caring and Finn sounds like a keeper too :) I loved reading your review!
    Summer/Sunny recently posted…Review: SOMETHING REAL by Heather Demetrios

  2. johannah

    This sounds like a really good book. I will have to check it out! I dated a guy with PTSD. Not fun dealing with it and def harder when they won’t get help for them selves. I bet this book would be hard to put down.

  3. A Canadian Girl

    I didn’t love Speak as much as some people – I thought it was okay read – but I really like the sound of this one, K. PTSD isn’t a subject that has come up in the novels I read so it will be good to read about it in more detail through a fictional perspective. This one sounds like a very intense read though so I’ll have to make sure that I’m for a book like that when I get around to reading it.
    A Canadian Girl recently posted…Review: Cress by Marissa Meyer (and Giveaway)

  4. E

    I’ve really wanted to read something by Laurie Lee Anderson, but somehow haven’t managed to get her to the top of my to-read pile. This has certainly bumped her up! Thank you for the thoughtful review.

    E recently posted…Sleepytime Blanket for Baby J

    • K.

      Mary, I forgot to mention that Hayley does actually suffer hew own PTSD! Thanks for pointing that out. This is not an easy subject, and I think it could’ve easily weighed down the book the too much but Anderson found a really great balance between the severity of this issue as well as the usual hilarity of being a teen.

  5. Paige G

    I really enjoyed this one because I definitely felt like Anderson got inside the head of a daughter who doesn’t understand her father, doesn’t understand herself, but is trying so very hard to help that it’s heart breaking.

    If you liked this one, try Trish Doller’s “Something Like Normal”. It is about an 18 year old boy dealing with PTSD and it’s beautifully tragic.

    • K.

      That was one thing I liked about the portrayal of Hayley…how from our eyes she was really trying very hard to help her father but the adults around her would tell her how sometimes she was still a child, still naive and we’d step back and realize they’re right.

      Oh I did read that one! Not sure if I reviewed it on here, I forgot. A quick search will tell us. I thought it was okay. Not quite on par with Anderson’s quality ;)

    • K.

      Oh, Pili, if you’re a YA reader, you must experience Anderson at least once. That was why I was excited for this to come out. It sounded great but also because I wanted to try her again. I tried reading Wintergirls and didn’t finish it :/ Didn’t quite capture me. I prefer Speak and this, of course!

  6. Jasprit

    I’ve only read one book by Anderson to date, which was also Speak and I have to agree her writing was just immense. She knows how to get under your skin with every single word and truly leave a mark. I’ve been on a emotional book binge as of late, so think this book that deals with such a hard hitting subject could be something that I could appreciate too. Glad you enjoyed this K! Gorgeous review as always!
    Jasprit recently posted…Review: Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott.

    • K.

      Thanks, Jasprit. I’ve only ever read Speak but I could already tell she’s a proper writer. This was just short of being a really, truly amazing book but it was great nonetheless. I think she does a great job of showing us the depths of suffering soldiers bear when they sign up without making it too overwhelming…because a subject like this can definitely be too much to take in. I’m glad you enjoyed it too.

  7. Becca Lostinbooks

    I want to read this for two reasons:

    1) Speak affected me profoundly.
    2) My boyfriend, a lifer in the Pararescue unit of the Air Force and a veteran, has PTSD. It is very controlled at this point but he still has nightmares and flashbacks. Once in a while I can even say something that triggers a flashback episode. I find him very brave not only for fighting for us but for having to go through the aftermath alone as the government does not care about you once you are no longer active duty.

    I love the way you describe Anderson’s writing. Spot on!
    Becca Lostinbooks recently posted…First to Read Review: Half Bad by Sally Green

    • K.

      Thank you, Becca, and my heart goes out to you and your partner. I won’t pretend I understand what this book and what your boyfriend is going through but I think human sympathy can go a long way. It is such an ugly side to this whole ordeal — when they come back broken and are not given enough help to deal with the aftermath. Again, I’m not an expert on the subject, I only know what I read and hear and see but I hope the government steps up in providing aid when it comes for the soldiers to recover.

  8. Nan

    Oh, goodness, that sounds like a difficult read. I’ve loved Anderson’s books for years (also since I first read Speak). I wasn’t certain about this one, but I think I’ll have to get it from my library now.
    Nan recently posted…In Which I am a Watering Pot

    • K.

      I think this is definitely worth checking out of the library. It is difficult, yes, but it’s also full of adorkable moments. When you read it, you’ll know what I mean :)

  9. Marianne @ Boricuan Bookworms

    I agree with everything you said. Laurie Halse Anderson is such a great author. The PTSD aspect was really well developed, and I could actually relate to Andy even if I’ve never been in the Army. Finn is so adorkable, he stole my heart with all the stupid math jokes, haha. Wonderful review, K. :)
    Marianne @ Boricuan Bookworms recently posted…Review: Avalon by Mindee Arnett

    • K.

      Wow, I’m curious as to how you found yourself relating to Andy, Marianne. But I suppose that means you’ve been through your own traumas? And yeah, Finn and math jokes. There was one really good one about integrating natural logs…yum ;)

    • K.

      Oh boy, does Hayley take care of her dad or what. But that was something I really connected with her. No matter how many times Andy fails her, Hayley is by his side again and again. Sometimes its wrong because clearly he isn’t getting better but if my dad was in pain and had a legitimate reason for it, I don’t think I could ever give up on him no matter how difficult it got. There are some people in my life I would trade my happiness for.

  10. Kate @ Ex Libris

    I loved this book and I could go on and on about it….. I am very glad that war related PTSD is getting a voice in YA because I think that as more and more soldiers come back, this is something that kids will have to deal with at home. It’s a very specific kind of mental illness, too, because it’s caused by an experience that others see as noble, so there is added weight to its suffering, I think. I loved Hayley and I loved Finn as well, mostly because his family was also effed up, too, but he was also someone who was willing to tell Hayley “this is not a safe environment”. She really had no one to say that to her, for the most part. The families all seemed very real to me and I always appreciate it when an author shows that struggle and dysfunction can and do exist next to love.
    Kate @ Ex Libris recently posted…Side Effects May Vary By Julie Murphy

    • K.

      That’s a wonderful point, Kate, how dysfunctional and wrong can be tied next to love and affection. I really connected with Hayley’s fierce loyalty to her dad. Right or wrong, I’m pretty sure I’d do the same thing. Another great point that this issue is being brought up in YA especially because many young kids will deal with their parents coming home and going through the same problem. Its strange how the cause is seen as a noble sacrifice, or a great act of courage when all the PTSD victims understand it as sin, or mistake, or unnecessary or regret. I’m glad it made a great impact on you.

  11. Camilla

    What a wonderful review! So well-written and makes me want to go and read the book right this moment…

    I find Halse Anderson’s books so strong and simple – simple in the sense that she makes it seem so real and right in front of you without any fancy words or gimmicks. Just a master hand at crafting believable and affecting stories with few words.

    I’m looking even more forward to reading this one now – Thanks!
    Camilla recently posted…Heart-breaking Dystopia

    • K.

      Thank you, Camilla. That’s the point of being a blogger — to make others want to read the books you like :) Mission accomplished. And Anderson is definitely a writer. A very good one.

  12. Angel (Spare Reads)

    We all need to read a book like this, books that don’t shy away from depicting heavyhearted subjects, something to pull us from the romance and the fantasy world back to reality, no matter how heart-wrenching the experience may be. The Impossible Knife of Memory is something I will for sure cherish and remember no matter how much time has passed and thank you for bringing back my fond memories with this book!
    Angel (Spare Reads) recently posted…Stacking the Shelves (2)

    • K.

      I agree Angel. It’s funny how this is supposed to be Hayley’s story — and it is — but her story is so consumed by her dad, good and bad, I felt like Andy featured just as strongly and just as often as Hayley — if not more. His story is so compelling and emotional it was difficult to forget. Whatever the scene, I always felt in the back of my head how Hayley will eventually have to go home at the end of it and face her dad and his pain. Sad but powerful.

    • K.

      Gripping is a very good word, Kimba. And I have no first-hand experience of PTSD but if it is anything like how Anderson depicts it…my heart goes out to anyone who is going through it.

    • K.

      Oh Bethzaida, I’m so flattered. Go ahead and buy it. I hope it impresses you!

    • K.

      Haha, Joy. I know what you mean but I wrote my review almost as soon as I finished reading it. I just wrote what I knew and how I felt. Yolo to the rest.