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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

Currently reading

I'll Give You the Sun
Jandy Nelson, Jesse Bernstein, Julia Whelan
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
Julia Serano

The Impossible Knife of Memory (or whatever you call it)

The Impossible Knife of Memory - Laurie Halse Anderson

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: (I may be committing treason here...) This book has merit as a sensitive portrayal of PTSD in a parent, but as a piece of YA literature it's only just ordinary. 


Title: Can I just say that the title is impossible to keep in your memory? Ba-dum-bum. Seriously, every time I type it I go for things like The Knife of Impossible Memory, The Knife of Never Forgetting, The Impossible Knife of Forgetting, Knives of Memorable ImpossibilityThe Knife of Never Letting Go (oh, wait...).
The Impossible Memory of Knives shows excellent mastery of the topic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), without making it terrifying (which it can be in real life, with scary personality changes in the person you love and thought you knew). Anderson's dad apparently experienced it, so she's the right person to tackle the subject, especially as it relates to the effect PTSD has on families But did she build the right plot around it? The story and writing are solid but not "wow"--not the masterpiece everyone is trying to elevate it to. This is a great topic and there are raw emotions here, but as far as writing and structure and thematic elements go--it's sort of forgettable YA. It lacks the urgency of Anderson's Speak--which had a sense of immediacy, as if the author or the narrator needed to tell the story before it was too late.
Something I liked: There's an admirable attempt at a deep parallel between Hayley forgetting her childhood, good and bad, and her dad's (Andy's) mental illness. I think perhaps Anderson wanted to show that Hayley had experienced a sort of post-traumatic stress of her own when she witnessed her dad drowning (and, because she was so little and not yet a swimmer, couldn't help). That experience is compounded by being abandoned by Trish, and by having to take care of her ill father on her own as a child and young-adult. Hayley eventually recovers her memories, perhaps because she has finally opened herself to the support of friends (is that the point of the book?) which is the first step toward healing her own injuries. I do wish the parallel had been stronger: in fact, since Hayley's dad doesn't have long-term memory loss, younger readers may not be aware that it can be a symptom of PTSD. Plausibility was high, and many of the characterizations (especially Andy) were excellent, although I thought Finn was a generic "hot YA" boy without much motivation as to why he was so rock solid, and why he became so quickly devoted to Hayley.
The realism is good: Hayley recognizes she needs her former step-mom, Trish, by the end and allows herself to rely on her, but still has the reserve of a hurt teenager. The point of the book isn't romance, so Hayley and Finn get together pretty early on and have ups and downs. (In a plot contrivance that felt clunky, however, Finn and Hayley break up just in time for Hayley to have to rely on Trish) And finally, there isn't a typical happy ending, but it's also not hopeless.
There were threads that disappeared, and I'm not sure why. We heard a fair amount about the lights being out in the school because of budget cuts. This may have been there in order to segue into the newspaper being closed because of budget cuts. But that made me ask myself: why is the newspaper (and Mr. Cleveland) in the story at all? No issue ever gets printed. It doesn't affect Finn's acceptance to college. Hayley never writes any more opinion pieces for it. Similarly, no math tutoring happens. Swim lessons become coupons pretty quickly, after one lesson in the pool. Gracie's family problems are not resolved. Michael's motorcycle license plate was run through a check by the police, but we hear nothing about what happened as a result. The painful situation of Finn's sister, Chelsea, is not resolved. I'm willing to believe that Gracie's family problems and Finn's family problems are deliberately not "solved" in order to show that none of these family problems have easy solutions, but I want to feel confident that the author was doing it for that reason, and somehow I didn't. These threads felt like lots of little episodes meandering around Hayley's life, trying to find a stronger point.
Something that distracted me: Why does Hayley handpick glass out of the carpet rather than vacuum it (we know there's a vacuum in her bedroom closet)? What is the symbolism here?
Some slips in ordinary copyediting, which surprised me given how important this book is to the publisher: Two paragraphs begin "In the end" right next to each other. "He smoothed my hair off my forehead" occurs twice in the pool. Repeated words like: "Understand that I could stand..." Also there was a continuity problem that Gracie is wearing no makeup in the cafeteria when she first shows signs of depression about her parents, but then minutes later (in the bathroom) her tears smear her mascara and her foundation.
General editing. Regarding that lack of urgency I mentioned above, I keep wondering why this book, with such an emotional subject, doesn't throb with purpose? Could it have been improved with ruthless editing? My reading buddy pointed out something of possible interest:
Speak - 197pp.
Catalyst - 232pp.
Fever - 251pp.
Prom - 215pp.
Twisted - 250pp.
Wintergirls - 278pp.

Impossible to Memorize Knife - 391pp.
In short: Only the topic feels different in this piece. The writing and the story line are both, like the title, relatively...unmemorable.