A (spoiler-free) review of Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory (New York: Viking, 2014)
Anderson’s latest novel has a compelling protagonist in Hayley. She is tall, knows all about cars, loves to read, can throw a punch, and has been “unschooled” for most of her life until her dad decides they should stop long-haul trucking and settle down in his hometown so she can go to a regular high school for her senior year. She is also her dad’s primary caretaker: he is a vet suffering from intense PTSD, and since her mother and grandmother died long ago and her dad’s alcoholic girlfriend abandoned them, the work of keeping him together falls to Hayley.
She copes by blocking out her past — “the difference between forgetting and not remembering is big enough to drive an eighteen wheeler through” — and consciously assessing danger around her. She has made one friend, Gracie, whom she knew when she lived in the town as a child though she does not remember her, and she classifies everyone as “freaks” who have not yet been beaten down or corrupted by the world, and “zombies,” who have. Most of her high school is made up of zombies. She resists help from adults because she has been hurt by them before and also because she is protecting her father, who is unable to be a competent parent.
And then she meets Finn.
The narrative trajectory of the novel has two main pulls: Hayley’s relationship with Finn, her first boyfriend, and Hayley’s relationship with her father. These relationships are not exact mirrors of each other, but the first one expands while the other one contracts, in similar ways. Hayley starts off wary of Finn, then trusts him, and then loves him. Meanwhile, Hayley loves her father but, as his condition worsens, grows to distrust and then fear him — and fear for him.
The energy of these two relationship trajectories drives the novel, and Hayley is a fully active participant in both of them. Anderson has created a complex and interesting protagonist and does a good job at revealing Hayley’s emotions and thoughts both by Hayley figuring out what they are and by the reader at times knowing her better than she knows herself. I wanted everything to work out for Hayley, and I suspected she would not be able to fix everything herself, but although she does end up allowing others to help, she is never helpless. She never loses her agency.
One weakness in the novel is the scattered italicized sections that appears to be her dad’s memories of the war. There is no explanation for them within the book and no logic as to when they appear. They give us insight into her dad but are the only times it is not Hayley’s story, and they prove to be extraneous, even though some are beautifully written.
The focus on Hayley’s “not remembering” is also problematic, partly because it seems too close to the unspoken secrets in Anderson’s best-known book, Speak. I kept wondering if there was some mystery about Hayley’s past to be revealed. However, despite the aura of fake suspense, ultimately the idea that Hayley needs to reclaim her past in order to have a future works.
Additionally, although the two relationship trajectories work well together and avoid stranding the reader in a too-familiar plot line, the novel stalls out a little about two-thirds of the way through as Hayley’s forward-and-back dance with Finn, combined with her up-and-down life with her father, are hard to shape together. The ending, however, is strong.
One question the book raises for me: is Finn too perfectly imperfect? Is the opposite of manic pixie dream girl the quirky sensitive hot nerd boy? Finn wears glasses but is highly good-looking (“those abs!”). He is an accomplished swimmer who gives up his sport on principle and so is athletic but not an uber-jock. He is smart and a great student, but he wants to go to a nontraditional college, not an Ivy League. He is Irish and Latino. He is awkward and gets angry and has family troubles, but he is understanding of Hayley and supportive and devoted to her. He is the dream guy for a guy-liking book lover who would be reading Anderson. But is he real enough? It’s a tough problem: how to build a better boyfriend, one who is lovable and strong and attractive but who does not overshadow the girl, who does not make the girl weak or dumb. It’s not the same as the manic pixie dream girl problem because, well, patriarchy: that dream girl has no true agency, like so many other female characters. Finn has plenty of agency — he must, to in order to be attractive. But he is not the brooding, ultra-masculine, unattainable bad boy (think Heathcliff). Rather, he is the thinking girl’s dream boy (the Augustus Waters type). However, by making him so worth having, does Anderson make him too much a fantasy?
But enough about the boy. I want to end by turning back to Hayley. It is not her too-cool-for-school attitude, her weak-kneed infatuation, or her alarming plight that makes her a young woman worth reading about. It is her strength. Anderson imbues her with flaws and vulnerabilities and feelings and ideas that makes me want to get to know her and see her through her struggle, but it is her strength — physically and morally but most of all emotionally — that makes me care, very much, what happens.