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Many people have heard of Laurie Halse Anderson – her book Speak was one of the most influential young adult novels of its time, and she’s been fairly consistent in constructing believable young protagonists, particularly girls, in slightly impossible but altogether completely real situations. While I would argue that her protagonists, outside of Speak’s Melinda, blend together in a tangle of smart-but-troubled-young-women and have the same sardonic, cynical approach to the world outside their immediate needs, she nevertheless gives voice to young women in satisfyingly complete ways.
Her latest novel, The Impossible Knife of Memory, deals with trauma and memory, and the intersection of the two particularly when it comes to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which the protagonist’s father suffers from and arguably, the protagonist herself also has to deal with in her own recollection and memory. It’s a very cleverly structured novel, and worth the read (particularly by young adults who have military families, as the military aspects are dealt with a great deal of respect).
But what I found interesting was the heavy-handed meta aspects and the parallels that she drew. While no one would accuse Anderson of subtlety (Melinda’s inability to speak reflecting silence for rape victims, or Lia’s anorexia as a statement on vanishing) when it comes to the issues she addresses, The Impossible Knife of Memory seems to push meta to an extreme, to the point where in a scene in a book with an unreliable narrator, a character repeatedly demands to know what is an unreliable narrator is. However, it’s the revelation of the main character’s unreliable memory, and her attempt to literally save her father during a childhood incident where she nearly drowns, that seems to have the least subtle implications of all: Hayley spends the entire novel drowning in her attempts to save her father.
While it’s an admirable examination of the dynamic between children of PTSD sufferers and their parents, a critical eye has to be drawn to the heavy-handed meta that Halse employs. Hayley’s attempts to save her father are more than enough, and it begs the question as to why the drowning incident features, other than to drive the message home. This also brings up the question of meta in realism, and it’s place in these kinds of work. I’m not saying that this sort of writing is unacceptable, and that metaphor should be reserved for sci-fi or young adult dystopia (where it is often used with an even heavier hand, in most cases) I would argue that in realism, it should be done with a more deft hand to prevent forcing the reader and emotionally manipulating the novel. Further, the coincidence of it is suspect and convenient for the story (but doesn’t serve the characters): her father suffering from a seizure in a pool, and his daughter diving in to save him, paralleled with her father’s mental and emotional breakdown, accompanied by his daughter’s continual attempts to prop him up without help. Is it necessary for the narrative to be complete?
It’s brings up a good question in young adult novels: how heavy do authors really need to make the meta, for it to be understood? In a world where students read The Scarlet Letter and are then introduced to Hawthorne’s clever symbolism (a connection Halse herself makes in Speak) is less more, and is more just impossibly overburdening the camel until that proverbial (and metaphorical) straw breaks it’s back?