Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson | Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory has been on my shelves for so long, that I honestly wasn't sure I'd ever get around to reading it. Except, of course, I enacted a book buying ban on myself to exactly motivate myself to read these older, forgotten books. So it was time to visit an author that I loved as a teen, with a novel that - when it had been published - was touted as being an important, powerful novel of PTSD.

Perhaps it's that the book hasn't aged very well. Perhaps writing conventions have shifted just so in the three years since I purchased The Impossible Knife of Memory. It could be that the book just isn't very good, I don't know. It's certainly not terrible, but I found myself taking issue with quite a few portions of the novel.

To begin with, this is a book that misses so many of the opportunities it itself raises to tackle major issues. Take the central theme of PTSD. Hayley's father very clearly has PTSD, and this is well explored. However, Anderson also very clearly shows that Hayley has some form of PTSD as well, yet never expands on it. Hayley is very much defined by the fact that her memory is full of gaps and we frequently see her crumbling somewhat as a flashback hits. Yet even with these scenes (and those that show Hayley being triggered by a series of different situations), Anderson never actually builds on this idea or how it affects Hayley. We only have her response to her father's pain, not her own. (And don't get me started on the way the book glosses over abuse and false memories. Just... no.)

Similarly, the book makes several references to other struggles young adults might face and their responses to them, but fails to treat it with the expected depth. Hayley is repeatedly critical of her fellow high schoolers' behavior and hypocrisy, that their lives are dull and "zombie"-like. On more than one occasion, she links this behavior with prescription drug abuse. Later in the book, we see Hayley's close friend self-medicating in exactly the way that Hayley describes (ultimately, even Hayley is tempted by the pills) in response to problems at home, but Hayley doesn't reflect on it or wonder at her own ignorance of the struggles other teens are going through.

These are two examples, but they stem from the same underlying problem: The Impossible Knife of Memory is populated by thinly drawn characters. Even Hayley, our narrator and main girl, feels underwritten. What are her motivations? What does she like? Why does she like what she likes? This is a chiaracter with baggage galore, but no real personality. It means that while we're shown a lot about her life, it cannot be explored. It means that there is no additional wisdom or complexity to her thoughts. It's all... oddly flat.

This impacts the two main narratives as well. It's hard to be invested in Hayley's budding romance with fellow student Finn when neither character is well-developed enough to care about. Why do they like each other? We know that they're physically attracted to each other, but... that's literally it. There's nothing else except minor quips here and there. It felt like a portion from a totally different novel, that didn't quite fit in. Similarly, it's difficult to really feel the struggle that Hayley's father is going through when we neither know him, nor really understand Hayley's relationship with him.

Now, if the novel was brief, I could probably understand this level of non-depth. I've read a lot of young adult novels that walked this line relatively well (I'm thinking of Chris Crutcher's relatively concise novels), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just under 400 pages long. And I honestly cannot understand how. The book takes place between the beginning of the school year and Christmas. That's it. The pacing is wildly inconsistent, both rushed and oddly slow. This is most strongly evident in an incredibly rushed ending, that literally time-skips eight months of recovery and healing in an honestly shockingly sloppy way. So what, I must ask, was the point? Why linger on Hayley's story if we're never going to have any sense of its impact?

It's ultimately disappointing, because it's not as though there's a plethora of young adult novels (or non-fiction) about PTSD or war or recovery. Anderson has also in the past proven her worth in writing about teens going through rough times (Speak, of course, but I also find Catalyst an underrated gem), but The Impossible Knife of Memory is just... not great. And heck, even the teen-isms are all off. It's got a lot of good pieces and is definitely "important" in parts, but it feels like a mess as an overall work. A shame.

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