Book Club Banter

Review of 'The Impossible Knife of Memory' by Laurie Halse Anderson
By Allison Lee | Feb 19, 2014

The books featured in this column are always chosen by either Blue Ridge Books or the Haywood County Public Library because we think the book would promote good discussion for book clubs.

Even though the column is intended for book club members, I think the titles also appeal to many other readers and this book is no exception. Having said that, I will point out that this book differs from the others we have featured. You may not have heard of Laurie Halse Anderson, but she is very well known as an author of novels for young adults and children.

This month’s book club suggestion is Anderson’s most recent novel intended for high school age students. DON’T STOP READING! I know you’re thinking, “I’m and adult and there’s no way something written for kids is going to interest me or be a possible selection for my book club”, but you could be very wrong.

There are amazing authors writing for young adults today and Laurie Halse Anderson is one of the best. Her list of books and awards is long. She is perhaps best known for the novel, Speak, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999.

Anderson has written for young animal lovers in her Vet Volunteer series and has 3 historical novels for teens, but she is best known for her novels that deal with real life situations that face young adults today. You won’t find any magic, vampires, werewolves, or zombies in Anderson’s novels. Speak tells the story of a girl traumatized by date rape and Wintergirls delves into the issue of eating disorders.

The Impossible Knife of Memory's lead character, Hayley Kincain, has moved with her father to his home town. Previously, she's been home schooled. She's begins the new school year, needing to learn make friends and start a new life.  Who will her friends be? Will she date Finn, who is very determined to be in her life? Will she let herself fit in? So far, you imagine that this is a typical teen novel and typical teen problems. 

You wouldn't necessarily be wrong. The book does present the type of issues that young people deal with everyday in 2014. But everyone's life is complicated by reality and Hayley lives with the reality that her mother has been out of her life for a long time and her dad still deals with the memories of his time in combat is Iraq and Afghanistan — hence the sharp knife of memories.

His post-traumatic stress disorder ( PTSD) is real and so is the fear and terror that will grip him over and over. Hayley's reality is figuring out how to try to find order and calm amid the chaos.  It's a role that a teen shouldn't have to play, especially as she has her own memories to relive.

As I read the book I was amazed at how much understanding of  PTSD the author has. She made it all seem so real. After finishing the book I read an interview with the author. She shared her own experiences of growing up with a father who suffered from PTSD after his experiencing in combat.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is not autobiographical, but the author's experiences definitely sharpen the emotional content of the book. As a bookseller, I've talked to many customers about the book.  My biggest surprise has been the adults who seem perplexed by the subject of PTSD and can't imagine that it affect anyone they know or be interesting to themselves or to a teen who might read the book.

These are not the adults who gave the book a try. Teens have been a different story. They tell me how much they love the book, how much they love all of Laurie Halse Anderson's books. My favorite review from a teen? "That book changed my life." I have no idea exactly what she meant by that, but I do think that just as books of fantasy have a place in our reading lives, so do books that reflect and help us make sense of the world around us, no matter what our age or the age of the characters in the book.

Questions for discussion:There are many powerful quotes in this book.  Choose a few and discuss.  Maybe consider one of these: Hayley is told by one of her dad's military friends," I know it's not fair, but you have to be the strong one."In what ways, other than the situation in the novel, are children and teens in situations where they have to be the one care-taking, making decisions, etc.  Fair, not fair, or part of the reality of life. Hayley takes her dad to school for a Veteran's Day program.

When asked about his time in combat and if he ever killed anyone, he answers  "Killing is easier than it should be. Staying alive is the hard part."Make sense of that. Adults often seemed afraid to let children and teens read books that reflect reality.  How important is it for books to help us make sense of the world and of ourselves.

Tips for Book Clubs: Don't be afraid to try a new genre.  You may be surprised by the type of books that speak to you. The worse that can happened? You might hate the book, but even that doesn't mean the discussion won't be good.