Anderson is an extremely well-known and acclaimed writer of YA problem novels (also historicals and one charming comedy, Prom
). I’ve reviewed several of her books under her author tag. Speak
is excellent, but Wintergirls
, with its mythic resonances, is my personal favorite.
The pattern of her problem novels is a teenager with an “issue”-type problem (rape, anorexia, etc), their struggles and ambivalent relationship with the problem and their family, a dramatic (sometimes melodramatic) climax which forces them into a final confrontation with the problem and their need to get help, followed by a quick conclusion in which they’re getting help/therapy and are clearly on the road to recovery.
They sound very formulaic, laid out like that, but her characters are vivid and often pleasingly snarky, her prose is excellent, and in the better books, the characters are much more than the sum of their issues. I particularly liked Wintergirls
, in which the heroine is haunted by her dead best friend, for its refusal to provide simple answers to the question of whether the ghost was an actual ghost, a memory, a fantasy, a delusion, a metaphor, or several of those. The Impossible Knife of Memory
, unfortunately, did feel formulaic, and did have characters who were exactly the sum of their issues. It also had a climax that stepped over the melodrama line and plunged into laughable.
Teenage Hailey is being raised by her veteran father, who returned from Iraq with a bad case of PTSD and has been a depressed alcoholic ever since. Her mother and grandmother are dead and his army buddies are rarely around, so the main relationship in the book is (or should be) between Hailey and her father. Their actual relationship consists of him being a disaster and her alternately mopping up after him and avoiding the fallout.
It’s not that this is implausible. It’s that there’s not enough actual emotion between them. There should be a bond, however strained, or the angry ghost of a broken bond. But I didn’t get a sense of that. Hailey thinks about her father’s actions and their effect on her a lot. But she doesn’t spend much time thinking about him as a person, or about her feelings about him. There’s surprisingly little actual interaction between them, and what there is isn’t very revealing of anything but “Severe, untreated PTSD wrecks your life and makes you a bad parent.”
I read some criticism of the book on Goodreads that the PTSD is whitewashed. I didn’t get that feeling, given that the Dad’s an alcoholic who can’t keep a job, can’t have a relationship, can’t parent his daughter, trashes the house, does drugs, and attempts suicide. That seems sufficiently serious to me. As far as PTSD goes, he’s on the low-functioning side of the spectrum. My criticism is that we never see him in a scene that isn’t about his PTSD. There’s little sense of what he was like before, or what he’s like beneath the array of harrowing symptoms.
The actual relationship in the book is between Hailey and her quirky new boyfriend. I believed them as a couple— he’s aggressively quirky, she’s quirkily aggressive— but the book felt like it should be more about the father-daughter relationship. The generic teen romance didn’t interact much with the Dad-has-PTSD story, resulting in a book that felt like two different books awkwardly integrated.
And then there was the accidentally hilarious climax, complete with physics-defying injuries. ( Read more... )
Even in much better books of the kind, include Anderson’s own better books, I find it frustrating that after an entire book full of lovingly depicted trauma, the healing is almost always summarized briefly rather than shown in depth, or at all. Or, to phrase it fannishly, you get 386 pages of hurt and 7 sentences of comfort.
Part of the issue may be structural. If you follow the forms we’re taught in school, a story is supposed to have a beginning, a long period of rising action, a short climax, and a very short conclusion. If the decision to seek help is the climax, you can’t see the healing, because that’s the conclusion. The only way you can show the process of healing, if you stick with this model, is if the start of healing begins right after the beginning, and the healing is
the rising action. I’ve read books like that— The Secret Garden
comes to mind— but they’re rare.
If I may make a modest proposal: there is no law of nature stating that all American books and movies must slavishly adhere to a single model of dramatic structure. There are perfectly valid alternate types of structure.
I wish more writers would try some other model out when they’re writing trauma stories, so they could show more of the recovery. It can be very interesting and dramatic, seriously. And it’s way better than the OMGWTF you broke your ribs how
climax of this one.
As for this book, as far as books featuring a daughter living with her veteran father with PTSD go, I liked Flora Segunda
better. The Impossible Knife of Memory