In many ways Hayley Rose Kincain is like the rest of her peers–the ones that inhabit YA books about high school. She starts off as the typical new kid, unused to the social pecking order after years of homeschooling on the road with her dad. A self-imposed loner, she is readily armed with a snarky response to everything high school throws at her. And just by being herself, she catches the attention of Finn, a “swoon-worthy” jockey nerd/nerdy jock who pursues her in his quest to find writers for the school paper, whom she promptly declines.
But Hayley also has an exhausting secret she is trying to keep. Everyday after school, she monitors the odometer on her father’s truck to see if he actually went to work that day. She checks the contents of the fridge to see if her father’s been eating (good) or drinking (bad). And she does her absolute best to keep everyone else in her life at arms length, lest they realize how poorly her father is coping with civilian life after the trauma of serving tours in Iraq–and take her away from him.
In Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, it’s clear that as Hayley’s dad teeters on the brink of despair and destruction, Hayley is trapped just as trapped there beside him, even if she didn’t physically go to war.
For a book that highlights the woefully inadequate support traumatized soldiers receive after returning from war, Anderson doesn’t pull any punches as she explores how Hayley’s father’s PTSD shades every aspect of Hayley’s life, especially their deep but broken relationship with each other. The only time the writing style softens is when we get a glimpse of the memories that haunt Hayley’s father. In the face of death and helplessness, the language used to describe his war experiences take on a strangely beautiful and poetic quality, even though the horrors of war remain unblunted.
I also appreciated how her father’s PTSD was juxtaposed against the mundane details of the high school experience, which Anderson uncannily depicts in a contemporary but universal way, and that this story is ultimately centered around Hayley. Even when Hayley begins to feel attracted to the romantic interest, Finn, who has a secret and a burden of his own, his backstory never overwhelms hers–just as her father’s inner turmoil doesn’t eclipse her own. Instead, it is her steadfast love for her father–and his new found knowledge that she is hurting right alongside him–that finally pulls him back from the edge.