Memory is a slippery thing and something you don’t think too much about until it flexes its darker power to haunt you with things you would rather forget. When loss has been a major part of your life, is memory friend or foe? Do you savor the memory of sweet times with people you love who are now gone or transformed into someone you no longer recognize? Or do you push it away because it hurts too much to contemplate all that you have lost? What about when you cannot control memory, when it controls you and takes over your life, tormenting you with visions that are unbearable – yet bear them you must, as they will not go away? These are some of the themes that Laurie Halse Anderson explores in her newest: The Impossible Knife of Memory.
17 year old Haley’s single father is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome after multiple deployments in the Middle East. He has seen too many horrors to digest and tuck away. Memory for him is a monster and as the book progresses, his methods of managing this monster become less and less effective. Haley has her own issues with abandonment. She is doing all she can to play the adult in her diminished family, managing their home and taking care of her rapidly deteriorating father. So, when the possibility of a new love, new friendships, and perhaps even new family life appear, she must decide whether or not to move beyond her own painful memories and try again to form loving relationships.
This book presses deep into the questions of how we manage our pasts and our memories. It examines the possibilities and consequences of both giving control of our lives over to memory, and limping along while we try to suppress it. Obviously, there are no easy answers, though a less gifted writer might try to make it so. What Anderson offers here are some paths that might move one beyond tightening the lid over painful memories. I have one criticism of this dark and powerful story: it ended too quickly. The book moves to a final crisis and climax, followed by a wrap-up chapter of about four pages. I wanted to see a more careful unfolding of these possibilities. I wanted to see Hayley construct her path, not just describe it in a paragraph. But that is only about 1% of the book. The other 99% is wonderful.