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.

Great YA You Might Have Missed

I love me some Suzanne Collins, Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Markus Zuzak, and Sherman Alexie, but maybe you haven’t discovered these yet (and if you have, aren’t they amazing???):

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Beauty Queens by Libby Bray
Huntress by Malinda Lo
The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds
The Difference Between You and Me by Madeline George
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link

The Problem with Allegiant [spoilers]




Endings are hard. If a writer has successfully created a world that pulls me in, I want the story to resolve and yet want the story to keep going forever. That tension between wanting resolution and wanting to stay in the story increases the longer I read, while the options for how the story can resolve constantly narrow. As long as the story does not end, anything can happen, yet my desire for what can or should happen grows more and more particular.

So, as a reader, I give writers a lot of leeway with their endings because in books that absorb me, I am aware I have grown invested and possessive of the story, but ultimately I have to accept that it is the writer telling me the story, and I am there to listen.

Therefore, in Veronica Roth’s Allegiant, I am okay with the fact that the main character, Tris, dies. I don’t think she has to die to accomplish the growth and change Roth envisioned for her (see ) because Tris’s decision to sacrifice herself for the right reasons would not have been diminished if she survived that decision — what matters are Tris’s intentions, and her belief that she is sacrificing herself. I would have loved to see the life she made for herself after risking her life for the right reasons and coming out on the other side of the ordeal. And yes, I would have preferred that ending.

However, her death is not the book’s central flaw, the flaw that prevents it from succeeding as a story. The central flaw is the shift in the third book of the trilogy from a single character’s first-person point of view to the alternating first-person point of view between Tris and Tobias. As most writers know from any introduction to creative writing class, point of view is considered to be a contract with the reader. But as most writers also know, all writing rules can be broken. Just because Roth began her trilogy using one point of view and then shifted to another does not mean I stopped reading the book, but it made me wary: Roth was going to need an excellent reason for such a drastic shift. A writer raises the bar high when she breaks such a fundamental rule as consistency of point of view. So much of a story depends on the perspective from which it is told. In the first two books, that perspective is Tris’s; it is her story and her voice. We are learning as she is learning. We see the world through her eyes. She is making choices and processing them. She is the hero of the story. She is the center.

And then in Allegiant, Tobias’s point of view inserts itself. (I should note that I experienced the series as audio books, so the shift in point of view was even more jarring than if I had read it on the page; I loved Emma Galvant’s narration of the Tris sections, but Aaron Stanford’s work in the Tobias sections is mediocre.) As soon as Tobias starts narrating, I wondered why — and the obvious answer was that Tris was going to die and would not be able to finish telling the story. I was left wondering if that outcome is inevitable, distracting me from the story.

But most importantly, to make a sudden shift in the third book of a trilogy is to change intention far too late. It is like Roth did not realize that she was telling Tris’s story. Throwing in Tobias’s point of view, even if Roth decided it was necessary for what she wanted to do with the plot, undercuts Tris’s story. Tris is no longer the sole hero, and her journey to death is actually less meaningful because of that change. Roth built up two books where we cared deeply about the protagonist and then expected us to care just as much about another character— not that I don’t care about Tobias, but I care about him most in relation to Tris.

I don’t know if Roth wrote herself into a corner. I don’t know if she fell in love with Tobias. But she left Tris behind in a more important way than leaving her dead on the floor on the weapons room: she took away her centrality, her perspective. The last chapters without Tris are weak not because of plot. They are weak because they do not have the hero we had invested in so much. The last thing I wanted in this series was for the hero to be silenced.





A Review of Cara Chow’s Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow (Scholastic 2011) has great moments and weak ones. The protagonist, Frances, is complex and engaging, and there is some great interaction between her and her best friend, Theresa. The core ideas — finding a way to speak one’s truth, navigating the path between loyalty to one’s mother and to one’s self — are important and compelling. It takes on the experience of a first-generation teenager in valuably familiar and unfamiliar ways.

However, the plot has trouble finding its rhythm in many places — we no sooner find out that Frances despises Theresa than they become instant best friends, for example, and the key conflict reaches several false climaxes.  The characterization of Frances’s mother is confusing because she borders on psychotic at times, yet we seem to be expected to take her instead as a very flawed but ultimately loving person. In addition, two key characters, Frances’ speech teacher and her boyfriend, veer on flawless and thus flatness.

All that said, Frances is a character you root for, and Chow’s voice is original. And of course, there is a lot to be said for any young adult book with an Asian-American woman on its cover. Chow might tell Frances’s story inexpertly, but her truth is worth listening to.

On Race and YA Lit: A Reading List

Here is a list of good sources about race in YA literature; most came out in 2012.

Commentary by best-selling writer Anderson about the lack of racial diversity in NPR’s 2012-best-of-YA list:
Anderson, Laurie Halse. “Happy & Sad about the NPR Top 100 YA List.” 12 Aug. 2012.

Want to see some YA covers with some color? Look here:
Bajpai, Nandini. “100+ YA Book Covers of Color!” Pinterest.

Despite the explosion of YA lit, Jen Doll argues we have a long way to go to diversify representations of race. She asks, “What does it mean when kids don’t see themselves on, or in, the books intended for them?”

Doll, Jen. “The Ongoing Problem of Race in Y.A.” The Atlantic Wire. 26 Apr. 2012.

The group responsible for the YA anthology Diverse Dystopias provides us with more reading material featuring characters of color in dystopian settings:
Hannah. “Diverse Dystopias: A Book List.” The Open Book. Lee& 30 Aug. 2012.

Holmes looks at reactions and analyses related to some viewers’ responses to the character of Rue in the Hunger Games movie:
Holmes, Anna. “White Until Proven Black: Imagining Race in Hunger Games.” 30 Mar. 2012.

Like Anderson, Shaker Laurie responds to the lack of racial diversity in the NPR best-of list: “Such an exclusive list isn’t just problematic for teens of color; when white teens are told that the “good” books are all about white people, it normalizes the white experience and bolsters white privilege.”
Laurie, Shaker. “On NPR’s Very White Best Young Adult Book List.” 9 August 2012.

A reaction to Jenn Doll’s Atlantic Wire article, addressed to YA writers:
Ockler, Sarah. “Race in YA Lit: Wake Up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!” 30 Apr. 2012.

As mentioned in the Anderson article, a great website for finding YA books with characters of color:
Reading in Color.

African American writer Jacqueline Woodson gives us a great list of good reads with characters of color:
Woodson, Jacqueline. “Good Minds Suggest — Jacqueline Woodson’s Favorite Books about Real Teen Problems. Feb. 2012.

Finally, check out and/or Created by YA writers Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, they’ve been “puttin’ a little diversity in YA since 2011.”