Novel: Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King | Goodreads
Release Date: October 11, 2016
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers (PRH)
“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”
Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.
But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.
“I am a human being. I am sixteen years old. That should be enough.”
This book was my first interaction with A.S. King, but now I see what all the fuss is about. This is a book that reverberates.
I can’t pretend that Sarah – the main character – is relatable, or even that I liked her that much. There was always something a little off-putting about her to me. Part of this is that I know myself too well, and I never really like unambitious characters, much less pessimistic ones; however, over the course of the book, I grew to appreciate her and what she goes through. She still tugged at my heartstrings.
Her psychologically riveting stream-of-consciousness narration poignantly illustrates everything that’s going on in Still Life with Tornado. It brings in her existential crises as well as small, detailed issues in her life that point to a much larger problem.
The real treasure of this book is how it builds up and compounds, slowly. At first, you understand only the vaguest aspects of Sarah’s desire to wander through the ghost towns of Philadelphia, to ditch art class, and to evade her family’s concern. As the plot unfolds, however, you start to understand parts of it. It’s not just about a headdress or an affair or Mexico. All of it collides in a stunning finale.
The book itself is artistic and raw. It pulls no punches and uses unreliable narration to paint a startling portrait of a broken family. Hard-hitting characters coupled with dreamlike encounters and commentary made for a read that wow’d me. A.S. King draws a situation that’s hopeless and frustrating, and that’s hard to read. I didn’t even get through It’s Kind of a Funny Story because it put me in a bad place, and I was expecting this one to do the same. Somewhat relieved that it didn’t, even though it affected me profoundly.
Still Life with Tornado also thoughtfully discusses issues like originality. Is anything we do original, or do we operate in patterns and circles? If it’s the latter, then what’s the point? As an artist, Sarah worries about that incessantly and applies it to her daily life. Her “original” behaviors become more and more alarming.
It starts with Sarah wandering, and avoiding school for some unknown reason. Avoiding the legacy of her art. As her parents nag her about her lack of ambition, she fights back in unexpected ways. She challenges her deadbeat father, who lounges around and barks orders at the girls. She thinks about her brother, who left when she was ten. She wonders why her mother puts up with her poisonous family, but Sarah resents her for it. When she runs into past and future versions of herself on the streets, they help her discover what exactly happens – and what it is that makes her family so innately, turbulently harmful.
The two different narrative versions of Sarah display points of her life that are irreparably different, but contain the vulnerability and authenticity that Sarah grapples with over the course of Still Life with Tornado. Something has happened over the course of the past few years, something that Sarah is repressing. As it begins to dawn on her, she has to reevaluate her memory and perception of her family and herself – which is heart wrenching and ugly to read about.
Supporting characters – like her mom, dad, brother, and friends – sharply impact her development even though she attempts to shrug them off with her newfound apathy. That’s one of the aspects of the book that really got me: her descent into depression and hopelessness, tinged with just enough confusion and light to push me through it and root for her.
I’m still a little awed about how elegantly A.S. King incorporated so many different elements, with such unreliable narration. Still a little amazed that she got me to care so much as she twisted these parts of Sarah’s life. Still Life with Tornado is well-written at its core. King flips between Sarah and her mother, who are both trapped in different ways that cause constant friction. She describes art, originality, gender roles, abuse, in ways that are subtle and hard-hitting (because they have unfortunate truth in them.) It’s not preachy, but it’s thorough. It took me a few pages to get into, but I read it in a sitting because of its magnetism.
It reminds me of many ways of A History of Glitter and Blood, which I enjoyed for the same reasons: it made me uncomfortable. It was gritty, but with reason. To clarify, I’m a squirmy reader. I don’t normally like books that deal with such absolutes, such painful and harsh descriptions. With that being said, I’m actively working to expand my reading horizons. I still liked this one even though it doesn’t fit my usual standards.
I will say that this is a book with a lot of adult crossover. The occasional switch in narration, coupled with the maturity of certain lines, make me think that it could have easily thrived with an adult fiction classification. The topics and narration do give it an ageless quality.
In summation, this book challenged me. It adjusted the way I see the world, which might not exactly be positive. It made me appreciative of the position and stability that I have, particularly with my family. It hurts to get through – it made me flinch at multiple points – but it’s worth the read.