The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
This novel is ostensibly about dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) but it’s really just another troubled teen romance, and I detested it for trivializing a serious and under-attended problem in such a cavalier and disrespectful fashion. As if that alone isn’t bad enough, Anderson also trivializes the rather abusive nature of the very 'romance' which the main female character gets into. As if that wasn't bad enough, Anderson seems to me to be offering us a jail-bait-and-switch deal here, where she presents us with what appears, at first glance, to be an against-trope relationship, but which upon examination turns out to be mired in the self-same clichés with which every other bad teen romance is smothered.
Hayley Kincain (not Kincaid - she's a kin of Cain) is portrayed as a rebellious seventeen-year-old in the first few pages, who is a troubled teen, and an outsider in every way. Soon after this you realize that she's no different from every other supposedly troubled teen in this kind of novel. Shortly after that, you realize that in truth, she's a bigoted, untroubled teen! She arrogantly thinks she's above everyone else in school, labeling them as either zombies or freaks. She's nasty about the retirees at the home where she 'volunteers' (she's forced to 'volunteer' because she's disruptive).
She's presented to us as being smart, yet she offers no evidence that she's any smarter than average. Indeed, she's so poor a student that she has a tutor forced on her, and the trope guy wangles himself into that position. The trope guy has a trope name: Finn. I honestly don’t get what’s heroic or attractive about a guy named after a fish appendage. He's dishonestly presented to us as being a skinny nerd, but he's not. He's a standard bad-boy" trope guy with muscles, upon which Hayley remarks more than once.
I don’t suffer PTSD (except from reading one-too-many bad YA novels), nor have I ever had to care for one who does, so I'm not speaking from experience here, but Hayley never acts like she's a girl with weighty troubles. Yeah, she cogitates a bit about her dad, but otherwise, she behaves in no different a manner than any other student in the school, and contrary to looking like someone who's living on her nerve-ends because of her father's understandably manic behavior, she looks like she's having a whale of a time most of the time. Would that be half a whale of a time - like a Fin whale of a time or something? Or maybe something much smaller, like a Beluga? No disrespect to Belugas, but they look like they could use a day at the beach, don’t they? But they probably have great skin when they get old, all that sheltering from the ultra violent rays. Not stingrays. Sun rays. But I digress.
Hayley's best friend is Grace, who is dating Topher. Seriously? Grace, who's routinely infantilized into Gracie, and Topher have about as bad a relationship as Grace's mom and dad do. On one of these occasions, Grace runs off in a huff to the bathroom like a six-year old and Hayley gets on Topher about going after her to enable her childish behavior. This is after she lectures Finn about how demeaning it is to attribute girls' emotions to being premenstrual, yet she says nothing about his use of the term "douche bag" as an insult. This was about 30% in and I was thinking at that point how trope-ish and boring this novel is. I see no evidence to justify or even rationalize the praise it’s had from less discerning reviewers. The troubled girl with a secret, the muscular guy with an utterly absurd name. "Finn"? Really? But enough wailing on him.
Finn's most noticeable attribute (ok, more wailing...) is that he persistently and consistently manipulates Hayley into doing what he wants, and she finds nothing to object to in his behavior. There's genderism in the novel too. When Grace's parents start heading down Divorce Road, it’s the guy who cheated. It’s always the guy in these novels, never the girl, never the wife. Grace's parents, stuck in a co-dependent relationship, are more juvenile than the high school kids are. Have you noticed how the parents are always engineers, architects, accountants. They're never mine workers, or farmers, or trash collectors, or car mechanics! Hayley is more upset by Grace's domestic problems than she is by her own, and she makes Grace go with her to community service at a retirement community so they can have fun with the oldies. When she gets home that evening, Hayley demands that her dad take her to the cemetery so she can visit her grandmother's grave. No waiting until a different day it has to be RIGHT NOW! Brat much, Hayley?
That was pretty much the point where I honestly ceased to care what happened to her, her relationship with Finn, or her relationship with her father. This novel (what I read of it anyway) was way too wordy and completely boring, and nothing happens in it that hasn’t happened in other novels. There's nothing special, or new, or interesting, or brilliantly written, or educational here. There is a lot of trite, trash, trope, and cliché, and I think it's warty all around.