It's impossible to read a Laurie Halse Anderson novel without comparing it to Speak. The author's 1998 bestselling, National Book Award-nominated novel, about the aftermath of a teenage girl's rape, is one of the most famous YA books ever written, a staple on teenage girls' bookshelves and 8th grade classroom reading lists.
Since Speak's publication, Anderson has written more than two dozen other books, ranging from historical fiction to children's stories, but regardless of time, subject, or the author's intent, everything comes back to Speak. The novel is simply so good, so astoundingly, universally powerful, that its legacy continues to live on in the minds of Anderson's readers, 15 years after its release.
I've been a fan of Anderson for a long time, and my copies of her novels are dog-eared and underlined. I've read all her YA books, seen her speak at lectures, and, just recently, interviewed her for Bustle. At 20, I am no longer in her key demographic (although, as well all know, teens are certainly not the only ones who read YA), but I continue to call Anderson one of my favorite authors. Like most others who read Speak during middle school, a time when every emotion is intensified and every book matters, I have carried the novel with me through teenage crises, broken relationships and family conflicts. It's the gold standard for every novel I read, as well as for my own writing; Speak is the book that most made want to be a writer, but it's also the book that most makes me question my own talent every time I set a pen to paper. When I read Anderson's other novels, I rarely judge them on their own merit, but rather how they stand up to Speak — and as good as they may be, when held up against a masterpiece, it's almost inevitable that they pale in comparison.
Yet not The Impossible Knife of Memory. Anderson's newest novel is the first of all her post-Speak books to move me by its own merits. That's not to say her other books aren't good, because they are; it's just that for the first time, Anderson has written a book whose prime takeaway isn't how much it evoked the novel that made her famous.
On its surface, it would seem that Knife would do exactly the opposite; its themes, plot and characters do much to echo those of Speak. In both novels, the narrator is a guarded, quiet teenage girl, with bad family relationships and past traumas weighing her down. She flounders at school, rejects offers of help, and clings onto the few friends she can actually trust. Sure, the circumstances are different — Knife's Hayley's secret is her father's PTSD, not her own sexual assault — but it's a story as close to Speak's as any Anderson has written since the novel's release. Yet while even Knife's tone is reminiscent of Speak — sharp, sarcastic and acutely aware — it's as different a book as can be, all because of one simple element: a love story.
In Knife, Hayley enters a relationship with Finn, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy-ish classmate. They flirt, they fight, they go on picnics and visit colleges. Their romance is uneven, as most high schoolers' are; for every make-out session, there is a miscommunication, for every almost break-up, a quick reconciliation. It's well-written, yes, but it's all very normal for a YA book — which is what makes Knife so unique.
Until Knife, Anderson had never written a love story. Her novels focused on family and friendships, the boys in the female narrator's life either villains or of little consequence. The absence of romance allowed the traumas and conflicts in the protagonists' lives to grab the readers' full attention, to clear our minds of anything but the narrator's struggle with rape, anorexia, or whatever other issue plagued her mind and body. Excluding love interests was a smart narrative choice by Anderson, and it her books wonderfully unique in the piles of love-struck novels that constituted so much of the YA being written each year.
By choosing to include a romance in Knife, Anderson lessened the distance between her and her peers. Despite its very-Anderson-like sparse writing and dry wit, Knife, due to its romantic storyline, could easily pass for a book written by any other talented author. As a longtime reader of the author who can typically spot an Anderson sentence a mile away, the conventionality of the love story is a bit disappointing. I don't fault Anderson for including it, but I have grown to love the unique, undistracted feel of her romance-less books. A love story, even a well-developed one, can't help but take away from the book's main relationship — the one between the narrator and herself.
That's not to say that Knife fails, though. In fact, it's a better novel than any Anderson's written since Catalyst. Anderson was smart enough to not make Hayley's relationship any more than a side plot; while I still wish it wasn't included, I'm glad that Anderson realized what makes her books work is the delicacy in which they handle the protagonist's internal conflict.
The plot is relatively simple — Hayley, 17, enters public school for the first time in years after her PTSD-plagued father decides to settle down in his hometown — but the traumas plaguing Hayley's family are anything but. As her father, Andy, struggles with the pressures of post-war life, Hayley takes the brunt of every nightmare, every panic attack and every drunken rage. It's a darkly compelling story, and Anderson gives it all the attention it deserves. It's also deeply personal — Anderson's father struggled with PTSD and alcoholism — and the author addresses the subject matter with perfectly conflicted sensitivity and, as always, stellar writing.
There are flaws to the book — a few one-note characters, a couple of overdramatized high school scenes, a love story is debatably necessary — but they are minor compared to the novel's successes. Like all Anderson novels, Knife is painful and honest, riveting and sad. When it comes down to it, qualms about the romance are almost irrelevant; Anderson could add love triangles or proposals, and still, her novels would never be about love. They'd be about faith, and survival, and darkness, and truth — all the things that set Anderson apart as a writer, and make her books last with their readers long after their covers are torn and their words seared into memory.