Teenage girl grapples with effects of war in ‘Knife’

“The Impossible Knife of Memory” by Laurie Halse Anderson (Viking, 391 pages, $18.99)

It’s rough enough to start at a new school as a high school senior, but “rough” doesn’t begin to describe 17-year-old Hayley Kincain’s life. She’s new in school, for one. Her mother died when she was a toddler. Then her father, Andy, was deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving her with his stateside girlfriend, Trish, who leaves them both after he returns wounded in mind and body. Hayley has spent the past few years being “home-schooled” in her father’s semi as he takes long-haul trucking jobs. But he has returned to the house of his now-deceased mother, where he and Hayley had lived years before, and enrolled Hayley in school, gamely trying to settle down and provide some stability for his daughter.

Among the “freaks” and “zombies” of high school, Hayley can’t really fit in and doesn’t really try to – she knows that being out of school during the formative seventh- through 11th-grade years means that she doesn’t know The Rules – but she manages to find a few friends anyway, including all-around “hot guy” Finn. Andy, meanwhile, wrestles with depression and fits of rage, unable to hold down a job and tormented by his war experiences. We catch glimpses of what’s going on inside his head in a few passages interspersed with Hayley’s narration, and what we see is a scared and ravaged but dedicated soldier. Hayley learns to cope with his moods and his needs as best she can, making excuses for him to others and generally trying to hold the household together.

Trying to deal with her father’s fragmented psyche has put a strain on her that is far too much for a teenager to be expected to bear, and we understand when she lashes out at people who are just trying to help her. We understand when she’s skeptical of the return of Trish into her and her father’s lives. And we understand when she wants but doesn’t want to get too close to Finn.

Writing for teens, Anderson does a wonderful job of portraying Hayley in the gloaming between childhood and adulthood: wanting independence and knowing she needs to be strong but still needing the love and support of a parent and not having the maturity to understand the complexities of adult behavior. Hayley is real and sympathetic, and her voice rings true.

Anderson, however, doesn’t flinch when it comes to portraying the after-effects of war on the family of the people who fight it. Andy’s psychological wounds are deep and resistant to healing, even as his physical ones fade, and the trauma goes beyond him to affect the people around him. She doesn’t get into the politics of the wars at all; this story is far more personal.

As problems mount, we fear the worst for Hayley and her father. But we also know that Hayley is strong and smart – we just hope that’s enough to bring her through it all. Anderson’s storytelling and characterization skills make us care that much and makes this book touching and memorable.