Friday, 8 August 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory, Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of Memory  Laurie Halse Anderson, Text, 2014, 363 pages, paperback, $26 

Adorably weird
Laurie Halse Anderson is the Paul Zindel of the 21st Century, creating intriguing young characters who combine strangeness with charm.  In The Impossible Knife of Memory, there are people who are odd to the point of eccentricity but who capture the readers’ heart almost instantly.

In her final year at high school, Hayley is old beyond her years because she has spent years caring for her widowed father Andy, a former Army officer who has survived tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Andy’s physical damage has been treated but he is still tortured by nightmares and flashbacks. “His soul is still bleeding,” says Roy, an understanding Army comrade, “That’s a lot harder to fix than a busted leg.”

When Andy gets wasted and picks fights in bars, it is Hayley who has to rescue him. “Total strangers - drunks, addicts, whores, ex-cons – pitied us.” Hayley protects Andy without damaging his self-esteem but her enforced maturity makes it difficult to cope with the trivialities of school life. 
While Andy battles his demons, Hayley has to deal with the alarming results. When Andy begins cleaning his rifles, shotguns and pistols, Hayley wonders, “Why would he clean all of them at once? Does he think he’s going to need them?”

Although Hayley feels she has to be the strong one to protect her father, we can see that she too has unresolved problems. Her hostility to her father’s girlfriend Trish – “the drunk who abandoned us” – blinds Hayley to Trish’s qualities. The stages by which Hayley solves her own problems and becomes reconciled to Trish make pleasing reading; the character development of both women is delightful.

Another pleasure is to see Hayley and her almost-boyfriend Finn working things out together.  “You’re both tall, you’re both quiet.  You’re both strangely smart and you’re both a little weird,” says a friend, Gracie, about Hayley and Finn, cautiously adding, “Weird in, um, an adorable way.” Once again clichés are cheerfully up-ended. Skilled at engine maintenance, after years of truck-driving with her father, Hayley is infuriated by Finn’s incompetence with his car.

Despite her sombre situation, emotionally handcuffed to a father who constantly teeters on the brink of destroying himself with drink and drugs, Hayley’s account of this year in her life is light-hearted and often funny.  She notes Gracie’s view of Romeo and Juliet, “Slutty fourteen year olds and gang violence. I can’t believe they make high school kids read it.”

The Impossible Knife of Memory is a novel that high school kids will read voluntarily.  It is a positive story, where events develop in an unpredictable way, avoiding clichés, and providing a satisfying and heart-warming conclusion. In fact, this is a novel which will be enjoyed by all who appreciate good writing.

Trevor Agnew

 Note: This review was first published in Your Weekend, The Press, Christchurch, NZ, on 22 February 2014.

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