Books, Reviews, YA Fiction

Still Life With Tornado, by A.S King


4 stars

“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.

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