Monday, January 6, 2014

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Impossible Knife of Memory
by Laurie Halse Anderson
Read: December 21 - 25, 2013
Published: January 7, 2014 by Viking Juvenile 
Source: ARC from publisher (THANK YOU Penguin!)
Category: Contemporary YA, Soldier PTSD 

Find: Goodreads | Amazon

For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.


Author's Personal Note:

In a personal note mailed with review copies of this book, Laurie Halse Anderson wrote about her father who enlisted in the US military at age 18 and was sent to help keep order in the town of Dachau, right when the concentration camp opened after World War II. What he experienced during that time was burned into his brain. He suffered from PTSD when he returned to the states, and Anderson says at 86, he still wakes up screaming with nightmares from what he saw there. 

The Impossible Knife of Memory is about a soldier who has returned home from the current war in Iraq, and is facing PTSD because of what he experienced. It is also about his teenage daughter who is struggling to navigate her father's erratic behavior, her own painful memories and a new school. 

Soldiers serve and protect to help keep our nation free. They say remembering is the best way to stop history from repeating itself. But sometimes memory cuts like a knife and forgetting feels like the only way to survive. 

Thoughts on the book:

The Impossible Knife of Memory is about an aspect of war that many people talk about but few really understand. What happens when a solider who has spent years in battle defending his country, comes home. How does he (or she) readjust? How does he go back to a regular job? And how does his family navigate a relationship with this person who has experienced something they can't fully understand, and who is not at all the same as when he left? 

Since he suffered a major leg injury and returned from his final tour of duty five years ago, Captain Andy Kincaid and his daughter Hayley have been the only stable people in each other's lives. A working class man who excelled as a leader of his troops, Hayley's dad has struggled with returning to civilian life. He worked for several years as a truck driver, bringing Hayley across country with him on his jobs. But that proved to be too hard to manage, when he started refusing to drive under bridges in case of sniper attacks. Now the captain is even more of a mess. Using drinking and drugs to cope, Andy can't hold down a job and has bouts of anger and depression. But other days he seems fine, and Hayley does her best to roll with his moods. Hayley's dad loves her, but it may not be enough when the blackness takes over.

Hayley narrates this book, except for brief excerpts from Captain Kincaid's experiences in Iraq, and it's clear that she is struggling as well. Hayley's mother died when she was a baby. Her grandmother took care of her for a while when her father was serving, but she passed as well, and Hayley doesn't want to think about what happened after that. When The Impossible Knife of Memory begins, Hayley and her dad have just returned to his home town (where she went to elementary school) for her attend her last year of high school. It is the first traditional school that Hayley has attended in years. Since her dad returned, Hayley has been "home schooled." Interacting with a horde of students and teachers is a challenge for Hayley. It's also hard to remember the importance of homework, when the rest of her life is in upheaval. 

Raw and difficult to read at times, one of the most interesting and sobering aspects of this book is how Captain Kincaid's behavior has affected Hayley. She feels tremendous responsibility for her dad and is constantly afraid of where he is and what he's doing. It's not a stretch to say that she loves him, resents him, respects him, fears him - and for him - at the same time. After caring for her father for so long, Hayley has also taken on some of his symptoms of PTSD. She experiences paranoia, fear of crowds and doesn't trust anyone easily. Also sobering, is how little to no support her dad, and as a result Hayley, has received. It is painful and scary to watch the captain's moods change and the unhealthy ways that he copes,  but it's equally terrifying to watch Hayley try to navigate this minefield by herself. 

One of the sweetest aspect of this story is Hayley's growing relationship with Finn, a boy from her school who in many ways sneaks up on her and works his way into her heart. A math geek and champion swimmer, Finn appears at first to have an easy life, but Hayley eventually realizes that's not true at all. She finds much needed support from him, and through trial and error, they figure out what it means to have a healthy relationship. 

In fact, the secondary characters in this book are written with a vivid honesty that speaks to the fact that no one's life is free of complications, and we all cope in different ways. Hayley's childhood friend Gracie's parents are divorcing and she's not handling it well. Likewise, Hayley's dad's former girlfriend Trish, whose part in Hayley's life she wishes she could forget, becomes less of a villain and more complex as the story continues. 

The Impossible Knife of Memory is raw, thoughtful, sobering, moving and hopeful. 

Laurie Halse Anderson talks candidly with Publisher's Weekly about her own experiences with a father suffering from PTSD and her hopes for this book. Read her interview HERE

Love Triangle Factor: None
Cliffhanger Scale: Standalone


I don't have personal ties to a soldier actively fighting today, or know what it's like to return from duty and try to go back to a regular life at home. But my first encounter with the darkness of war also took place at Dachau, which I visited with my parents when I was about 5 years old. After viewing the crematorium and photos from when it was a concentration camp, I asked my dad "Why would someone do this to another person?" He didn't have a good answer. 

May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 - 1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defence of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men. 
(Quote repeated in several languages. Dachau mid 1980s)


  1. I didn't know anything about this book other than the cover and for some reason, don't ask me why, I thought it was yet another crime mystery or something like that. Imagine my surprise when I read your review and found out that it is not the case at all. I have read lots of (war) PTSD books, but I think that this one sounds like the real deal. Not the prettyfied one where the characters get their HEA and heal their wounds, but one where realistic situations take place and a true portrayal of PTSD-s nature and what it does to our loved ones can be. I'm honestly 110% intrigued now and I definitely want to give this book a try. I'm also glad that it has a spark of romance to give, perhaps, hope for this otherwise seemingly dark story.

    Also, I went to Auschwitz concentration camp when I was about 10 years old. We have travelled a lot in Europe with our family and Auschwitz is one of the places we have been to. Even at the age of 10, it was mortifying seeing all of that and I honestly don't know why people feel the need to torture others, bully them, rise a war against people and other nations. It's terrifying and makes me sick to my stomach to think that some people have to endure this still. Go to a war zone and fight for their lives.

  2. What a poignant, thoughtful review, Heather. Not that I'd expect less from you, but I was shaken up just reading your review...I can't imagine what the actual story will do to me. I'll be reading it at some point this week, though, so we'll soon find out. I don't have any personal experience with this issue either, but it sounds like the author put so much of herself into this book, that it portrays the issue realistically and will make me feel as if I've survived this, too.

  3. This sounds like a stunning story Lauren, but definitely one I'll have to shore up my courage to tackle. I just can't even imagine what our troops see when they're deployed, and can't fathom how difficult returning to civilian life would be after being hyper-vigilant for so long. Our military men and women never cease to amaze me. I love that this book isn't focused solely on the solider and his PTSD but addresses how his behavior directly affects his family as well, we don't see that aspect written about as often. Gorgeous, gorgeous review my friend!

  4. Lovely review! This is a beautiful book -- raw and powerful. The personal note from Anderson makes it all the more poignant. I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I did :)

  5. I really love the way you've broken down both the author's connections to the story she wrote and your connections to the novel as well. It really made this review quite poignant, touching upon a sensitive issue in that way. I have a copy of this I need to get to soon, though I suspect I'll be putting it off because of the heavy subject matter for awhile, but I do really love that so many issues, including a sweet romance, come together in this. Anderson has a talent for bringing into perspective societal issues that we often neglect, so I have a feeling I'll really enjoy this when I do get to it. Lovely review, Lauren - definitely one of my favorites of yours! :)

  6. I was so excited when this one showed up in my mailbox but I'm also a little afraid to read it because I know I'll get completely attached and sad! I teach so many military kids and know many of their parents who've come back from overseas having difficulty coping with everyday life. This sounds like a FABULOUS book. I just have to prepare myself mentally for it.

  7. This is such a remarkable review, Lauren. This is the first time I'm learning about this book, and though the subject matter is weighty, I agree with you, it's an issue we need to see more of, especially in YA literature. Teens need access to material that will make them think about the horrors of the world but not only stop here. It's important for teens to examine how the aftermath of war often leaves those involved emotionally crippled - to learn about empathy. The hope from a work such as this is to promote discourse, but perhaps, it can help children who identify with Hayley's story overcome their own battle with darkness too. I personally don't know anyone who suffers from PTSD, but I know I won't have any trouble connecting with Hayley's story at all. It's nice to know that Anderson integrates a heartwarming romance to balance out the tough reality of this novel. I look forward to picking it up. Thank you for the introduction. <3

    Marlene @ The Flyleaf Review

  8. I had some interest in this at first, but now I am VERY interested. I love that it focuses on war and PTSD and the struggles after. The relationships involved and you mentioned how raw it is and that really pulls me because I'm ready for a raw, contemporary read that will leave my heart impacted. Your review is amazing, Lauren. I love the picture that you added on the end!

  9. Honestly, the thought of this book and the story it contains just slices me into pieces already! It sounds like a story that will put me through an emotional wringer, so I might have to steer clear until I'm in the right mindset for that. It sounds like it was effective in telling Hayley's story (and her dad's) in a way that would really affect readers.

  10. What a fantastic review. I actually haven't read many on this book + I haven't read a book by Anderson yet. (I do own Wintergirls though.) It sounds like this was incredibly tough to get through, but I do like that the main character was a father and not a teenager (like in Doller's Something Like Normal). It sounds really really effective, and I'm going to have to find a copy of this somewhere. I know "love" is probably the wrong word but I like how she supplemented her new book with the story of her dad. I think that makes it even more effective because it's absolutely real. And written from experience.


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