At first it was awkward to read The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Aderson, a book in which the main character goes by my name and spells it wrong. But I rallied. See, the other night I brought our giant cushy ottoman from one room and slid it against our over-sized chair and now I possibly have one of the world’s most comfortable if ordinary reading seats. Once the feet are up and tea is at my side a book is going to have to be really bad to get me up. That or hunger but I’m hoping my boyfriend will have mercy and bring me reading snacks if my stomach growls loud enough.
Normally 17-year-old Hayley Kincaid completes her studies while riding shotgun with her truck driver dad, Andy. This school year things are different. They’ve parked themselves in Andy’s family home in Upstate New York so she can have a normal senior year with classmates and everything. Staying still is bound to come with some growing pains, but Hayley doesn’t have time for teen angst. The longer her father stays put, the more his PTSD catches up with him.
After serving two tours in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, Andy returned with all his limbs but he’s broken inside. “His soul is bleeding” and Hayley’s not sure if he’ll ever be okay again, if he’ll hurt himself or possibly someone else. What makes this story compelling is that he clearly loves her and when he’s sober he’s a good dad. I haven’t read any books with a main character suffering from PTSD. Halse writes this troubled dad without judgement or softening his edges.
I get on a plane in hell and get off, hours later, at home. I try to ignore Death, but she’s got her arm around my waist, waiting to poison everything I touch.
This is Hayley’s story though. She’s trapped, too, only for her it’s this cycle of trying to save her damaged dad again and again. Parts are sad and disturbing. Tension comes from believing something bad could happen to either of them at any moment and half the time they knowingly walk that line.
Hayley is trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense. Her memory of childhood is blank and she figures not having warm memories to compare to the present to is a good thing. The scenes flow into each other, making this tough to put down. A reluctant visit to a nursing home shows how sometimes forgetting the bad things helps keep people going. She comes to understand her dad can’t escape by simply choosing to. He’s trapped in his head surrounded by memories that relentlessly drag him back to that place.
I liked that Hayley isn’t a perfect daughter and she’s far from a model student. Her voice feels so authentic I had to stop, get off my comfy seat and look up the author just to make sure she wasn’t a teen. I knew she wasn’t because her mega book Speak came out in 1999. How she writes teen characters like they were sitting right beside her is a mystery.
This book naturally put veterans top of mind. The observation that just because they don’t show physical damage doesn’t mean they’re okay stuck. At first it made me think of my grandfather, a WWII vet, and wonder more specifically about what it was like for him to return to his life as a dad, husband and steel worker after. Then you think of all the veterans walking around the world today and how impossible it is to comprehend what ones with PTSD go through each day.
The writing here is clear and energetic. It feels effortless despite the tough subject matter. Dark, somber stories can be a hard sell, but this one has humor and a Hayley. There aren’t enough books with Hayleys. Set during winter, it’s a perfect pick to balance all that holiday cheer.