Review by

The Impossible Knife of Memory

Powerful teenage novel about fitting in...or not?

I loved Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, the first in the Seeds of America series, gripping historical fiction for young adults set in the American Revolutionary War. The Impossible Knife of Memory couldn’t be more different to Chains, on the surface.

Set in small town America in the present day, the novel tracks the senior year of Hayley, a mouthy and fiercely intelligent girl of 17 with defiantly blue hair. Yet something about the inner strength of Hayley, her spirit and resilience, reminds me very much of Isabel, the unforgettable heroine of Chains

So – are you a zombie or a freak? Because, as Hayley explains…

There are two kinds of people in this world.

  1. zombies
  2. freaks

Only two. Anyone who tells you different is lying. That person is a lying zombie. Do not listen to zombies. Run for your freaking life.

Hayley would rather die than be a ‘zombie’, ‘and high school is where the zombification process is most intense. She strides around her new school aggressively defending her rights as a ‘freak’; she doesn’t want to fit in. Constantly on high alert, categorizing her encounters, ‘Threat,’ ‘Assess’, ‘Action,’ Hayley moves through life like she’s doing permanent battle.

All of which seems pretty extreme for a teenage girl at high school – and then Hayley takes us home to meet her father. ‘A few days after we moved in, Daddy got unstuck from time again… The past took over.’ Andy is an Afghanistan veteran, suffering from increasingly overwhelming PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Hayley’s mother died when she was younger, and they’ve been driving around America in Andy’s truck for the past few years, Andy desperately trying to escape the memories haunting him. But now he’s decided it’s time they settled back in his home town, time that Hayley spent her senior year in a real high school.

The novel spans Hayley’s eventful school year. She makes a fellow ‘freak’ best friend: sweet, kind Gracie, whose parents’ rocky relationship, and her own ups and downs with a rather feckless boyfriend, are a constant burden. And Hayley soon falls for the irrepressible, quirky Finn, who proves to be a real support for ‘Miss Blue’ through her toughest moments, though we come to learn of a dark family secret of his own that he’s been dealing with.

Teenagers will get a lot out of this book. The three young main characters are facing huge problems in their home lives, but their spirit and support for each other are inspirational. I like the realness of their reactions, their failures. I also like the imperfect parent figures, redeemed by how fiercely they love their children. There’s a dramatic but hopeful ending, and I think teenagers will like the sense of agency and individuality in the book. Give it to your teenage girls over 15 or 16 – there are swearing and sexual references, but it’s the weight of the issues discussed (alcohol, drugs, violence, PTSD) that you should be particularly aware of.

As this book began, I really wanted to be a ‘freak’ like Hayley: independent, different, defiant. But as I read on, I became increasingly conscious of the hardship inherent in that way of life. I can’t help wanting just a little ‘zombification’ for teenagers – because if we opt into society, at least partially, doesn’t it make for a happier life? Something to discuss with your daughters.

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The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson published by Viking, 391 pages

15-16+ years