Words I Love

“It is a terrible thing, this kindess that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have. We who are so rich, so full of strength, we end up with that small change. We have nothing else to give. ”

— Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

The Impossible Knife of Memory: a Girl to Remember

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.

A Review of Silas House’s Eli the Good

Silas House’s book for middle readers, Eli the Good (Candlewick Press, 2009), is like its ten-year-old protagonist: both are subdued but keenly observant, of a particular moment but always conscious of a broader perspective, and concerned both with nature and human nature. House’s prose is simple and accurate, and he makes multiple characters – Eli, his parents, his aunt, his sister, and his best friend — vivid. The book crackles when characters interact, especially when they argue. This story reveals a family full of love despite their anger at themselves or each other or their circumstances, and Eli is the heart of the family — in love with them all, trying always to discover who they are and who he is.

 

The book is set in the summer of 1976. House gives us plenty of cultural references — Leif Garrett, ABBA, The Waltons, Jaws — which can both feel forced and irresistible (perhaps especially for readers like me who were also kids back then). The central conflict focuses on Eli’s father, who is struggling with flashbacks from his time in Vietnam; the situation is exacerbated by Eli’s sixteen-year-old sister’s constant anger and their father’s sister, with whom his relationship is strained, who comes to stay. Eli’s world revolves around his family and his best friend, Edie; and around playing in the creek, riding his bike, and sitting under his favorite tree. None of the major events are caused by Eli, but he is still in the middle of them, and his journey is to make some sense of what is happening — he is a skilled eavesdropper — and to figure out who he is in the middle of all this.

 

At times the plot clunks — such as when we are given information we should have had a couple chapters before — and House overdoes foreshadowing: the characters carry the plot along well enough that we don’t need so many murmurings about the big things that are to come. The foreshadowing is also a part of the slightly overdone telling about how events fit in to Eli’s adult sense of the world and his pronouncements on who people are. The narrator makes it very aware to us that he is the grown-up Eli relating the story, and that voice sometimes is too dominant. The epilogue, written in the present time, comes across as the weakest part of the story, and tying in the events of 1976 to the Iraq war feels self-conscious, too autobiographical.

 

Despite some rough patches, the story rings true and honest. It is wonderful to get to know a boy who feels so much, who is good, and looks for the good in others. He calls himself weird, but we as readers know that his weirdness is what makes us want to listen to him.

Words I Read Over and Over Again

“In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another…And yet these events have formed Gogol, shaped him determined who he is. They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”

–Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 287 of Mariner Books edition)

“Prayer Number Twenty”

Prayer Number Twenty

Wind carry me up and away,

my loves’ voices in the air as echoes

and the taste of all words in my mouth.

I want no sight but the shimmer of darkness,

no touch but yours,

and the smell of rain

as we skim the surface of the world

— Medina Martin