Morbid Memory Explores Emotional Health

Isabel Owens, Staff Writer

Laurie Halse Anderson’s newest book, The Impossible Knife of Memory, published January 7, 2014, explores the essence of memory and the impression of war on soldiers and their families. The novel exemplifies Anderson’s tendency to broach dark, sometimes controversial topics, telling the story of 17 year-old Hayley Kincain and her father Andy, a war veteran who suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

As in her other books, Anderson crafts a teen voice with surprising accuracy, skillfully relating Hayley’s story. Anderson raises topics in her books, such as anorexia, sexual assault, and suicide, which are far from lighthearted but important nonetheless.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is narrated by Hayley, with occasional flashbacks of Andy’s war experiences, providing a brutal image of the suffering soldiers undergo. Andy suffers from nightmares and hallucinations, and Hayley lives in fear of hers, leaving readers to question, when one man joining the war can affect an entire family so greatly, should society idolize his participation?

When Andy returns from Iraq, he and Hayley are constantly moving from one place to the next, as he attempts to escape the visceral monsters that torment him.  But Andy is not the only one internally surrounded by monsters; Hayley divides the human race into only two kinds of people: zombies and freaks. When the duo move back to their hometown in order to enroll Hayley in public school, she is horrified by the “zombification” process that is high school, and just how many of her peers have succumbed to the disease, disguising their lack of sanity with smiles and shiny hair.

Hayley rebels against the unjust education system and her deteriorating home life with her cynical attitude and clear animosity for authority. But beneath the tough sarcasm is a painful past; abandonment as a child and sense of responsibility for her father create mental wounds that become harder to repress.

Simultaneously, Andy’s mental state declines, which does not go unnoticed by Hayley. She worries that Andy will turn to drugs.

Despite her disdain, Hayley manages to make a friend, Gracie. At first, Hayley marvels at the pure sweetness exhibited by Gracie, and the seeming perfection of her family, wondering how anyone could be so “non-zombified.” But, after spending more time with Gracie, Hayley realizes that Gracie’s family is falling apart.

Hayley’s realization reminded me that everybody has a cross to bear. Even if someone’s life seems perfect, a smile can disguise almost anything. By looking at those around you, it’s impossible to tell whose parents are gone, who suffers from a mental illness, or who focuses excessively on their future because they need to escape the present. Hayley begins to see the world as her dad does, with shadows haunting every living thing.

Hayley also meets Finn, the editor of the school newspaper, when he tries to convince her to write an article on the library resources, as a way to meet new people. Although Hayley first resists, they gradually become closer, and it is revealed that Finn is dealing with his own issues.

Throughout the story, characters from Hayley’s past are brought back, and more is revealed about Finn and Gracie’s lives as they intertwine with Hayley’s.

This book is recommended to teens ages 12 and up. I would not suggest that younger teens read it, due to the somewhat morbid topic and solemn writing style, but I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a real, raw story of tragedy and, in the end, hope.