“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 sixteen years old. I am a human being.”
Still Life With Tornado really took me by surprise. I’m down for anything that A.S King writes, and I knew right away (even from the premise) that there would be an underlying mystery and intrigue added to the initial contemporary feel. But, Still Life With Tornado kept me on the edge of my seat towards the very end with it’s magnificent magical realism topic and the reluctant yet determined unveiling of the terrible situation Sarah and her family are put in. While I didn’t love the characters and writing as much as those of Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Still Life With Tornado still remains an important and beautiful novel.
Still Life follows 16-year old artist, Sarah, as she faces an existential crisis in her life, claiming that nothing the world does is truly original. She is lost and unaware of her repressed memories of pain as she hungrily yet cautiously looks to unveil them. The book is actually not only about Sarah, but her parents’ poison-filled relationship, the reason of her brother’s departure from the family, and the mystery that is the Mexico vacation that happened six years ago. As Sarah painstakingly digs into her life and all that is unoriginal, we discover a heartbreaking, moving tale in this situation of lies, violence, hate and love.
It’s truly incredible the amount of light and originality King brings to common topics such as violence and abuse within a family, while keeping it realistic and easy to relate to. If you couldn’t tell already from the premise, there is a hint, a large hint of magical realism inscribed into this story, consisting of Sarah in the past and future. 10-year old Sarah, 23-year old Sarah, and 40-year old Sarah’s purposes are clearly not what they seem to be, and the way this aspect was utilized in such as situation was so prophetic and un-pretentious. The title itself is quite clever; it compares a still life used in art (a work of art depicting commonplace items such as flowers or a bowl of fruits) and an added tornado to Sarah’s stagnant yet chaotic position that her existential crisis poses.
The pacing of the story is indeed slow-paced and the prose is lyrical and metaphorical most of the time, which may bother a few readers. I, personally don’t fare well with the choppy, poetry style writing that many authors put to use when writing emotional stories, so I wasn’t a fan of Sarah’s POV in the beginning. Fortunately, knowing that King wrote this way on purpose (some of this writing can be stemmed from lesser skilled authors, a bad sign), Sarah’s narration grew on me as I read on and uncovered the emotional depth residing in it. There is so much rawness and truth in this story, and as I’ve previously stated in my review of Vera Dietz, King expresses emotion so effortlessly. The moments building up to Sarah’s meeting with Bruce (her brother), the buildup to the final uncovering of the virulent situation at home, and just Sarah’s emotions throughout the book before and after opening her eyes to the chaos was so beautifully and realistically weaved together.
The characters and their personalities aren’t as typical as one would expect — which is great, of course. Sarah is a very flawed and realistic character in her psyche and actions, but I did struggle with her POV because it wasn’t as distinct and reliable as Vera’s or another contemporary character. She’s not personality-less, but not very present either. For the most part, this is not Sarah’s story but rather how the events around her shape her thoughts, feelings, and her very existence. While there’s a part of me wishing for Sarah to be a typical contemporary MC with problems, just to make it easier to read, this is one of the few instances where the surroundings and supporting characters have more influence in the story than the MC herself — and it works. Sarah is indeed the main character, she dictates her narration softly but soundly and displays the entanglements she involves herself with, but the book is so much more than Sarah. This can be clearly seen with a POV from Helen, Sarah’s mother, as she waltzes in unassumingly with wit, humor, and a sardonic yet admirable tone. As she pops in and out, we come to know of the vulnerability and inner strength that Helen shows whilst describing her experiences with Chet, her husband, and her immense love for her children. Bruce was also a great character, three-dimensional and full of love and hurt from the scars of his past.
Overall, Still Life With Tornado is an effortlessly woven tale of abuse and screwed-up relationships. Fans of A.S King’s previous work are bound to enjoy this one, and I would definitely recommend it to those looking for a unique tale on such emotionally intense subjects.