Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers on October 11th 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
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“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.”
Trigger warning: mental and physical abuse
I really, really enjoy A.S. King’s writing (see my review of Ask the Passengers here) but every time I pick up a book of hers, I’m a little taken aback by how weird and quirky it is and it takes me a while to get into it. I definitely had that experience with Still Life With Tornado and didn’t really know what to think of it at the start. I have to admit that this review isn’t coming very easily to me because of how much I still don’t think I’ve fully grasped.
This book is ostensibly about sixteen-year-old Sarah’s existential crisis. The novel starts off with Sarah skipping school and unofficially dropping out because she’s come to realise that ‘nothing new ever happens’ and nothing in like is original. She goes on a little bit of a journey to be original and do original things. But as you delve deeper into the book, you soon realise that it’s about some much more serious topics like abuse and bullying. Something has happened to Sarah at school, which was the main cause of her dropping out of high school, and we slowly get to find out what that is. But as we progress through the book, we also get to find out about Sarah’s past and a life-changing event that occurred when she was 10. Sarah can’t seem to remember what has happened but the other Sarahs who happen to be roaming around Philadelphia are helping her piece together the story, especially ten-year-old Sarah. There is also 23 year old Sarah and 40 year old Sarah, and together, they help the current Sarah move past her existential crisis and all the things that are happening in her life.
“Just remember, Sarah, only you can make you happy.”
I have to admit that I wasn’t enamoured with the book at the beginning and I was getting frustrated with it because it seemed like it was just another story about teenage angst and wanting to become an original person who isn’t like anyone else. But I shouldn’t have doubted A.S. King because she always writes beautiful stories that aren’t what they seem to be. Once I got past the first 75 pages, I started flying through the book because it had me so captivated and I wanted to know more about Sarah and her history as well as the history of her family. There were parts that were quite confronting but I enjoyed the uniqueness of the story and that it was about more than just Sarah. It was about Sarah’s mother, Helen, and about her brother, Bruce, and why he left the family six years ago. The book was written not only from Sarah’s perspective, but we also get occasional chapters written from Helen’s perspective. Importantly, we also get to read about the week-long vacation in Mexico that Sarah’s family had when she was 10 years old. I absolutely loved the way that the story unfolded and how the reader was able to piece together all the different parts of the story and the different perspectives. I also thought that the topic of abuse was handled extremely well. I loved the way that it explored abuse of power and the effects that abuse has on victims, as well as other things like survivor’s guilt.
The only reason why I wasn’t completely in love with this novel was because of the magical realism. I love, love, love magical realism but I don’t think every story is going to be for everyone, and that was the case here for me. I found it to be a little bit confusing and I couldn’t really connect with it. I did really love the presence of the other Sarahs and the role that they played in the book but I just didn’t really understand it. I don’t think it took anything away from the story and from the themes of the book – I just found it hard to understand and I finished the book still feeling a little bit confused.
But like I mentioned, I really enjoyed the other Sarahs in the book. I found them all to be different enough that they were distinguishable but also similar enough that they could plausibly be the same person. I especially loved ten-year-old Sarah because she was so innocent but clearly had been exposed to darker things too. My favourite character in the book was probably Bruce. I really loved how much he cared for and loved Sarah. It was really great to see because often older brothers don’t feel that way about younger sisters. I just really enjoyed all of the sibling love in this novel. I also loved reading from Helen’s perspective and everything she went through for her kids.
I really enjoyed Still Life With Tornado. It was a wonderfully executed book about existentialism and the darker topics of bullying and abuse. There are beautiful character relationships in this novel that I absolutely fell in love with. It was just a bit of a shame that I found the magical realism to be a bit confusing and hard to understand.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
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Sounds super interesting. I wanna read it.
It's a super interesting premise and I'd recommend it if you're intrigued!
On the one hand, this sounds so interesting! And the various Sarah's at different stages in her life is such a unique way to tell the story.
On the other, I'm grappling with the idea of a 16-year old going through an existential life crisis, and that the unique method of story-telling might be too much for me.
I'll have to read a few other reviews for this one before making a final decision, I think.
Yeah, I struggled with the 16 year old going through her existential crisis too. I felt that it was just all a bit too dramatic. But I guess I was a bit of a dramatic teenager when I was 16 as well (I hope I wasn't as annoying though).
Well, that's definitely an interesting premise! Based off of the synopsis, I was almost getting a schizophrenia vibe. Also, for some reason it reminds me of the book Speak. I read that book so many years ago now I can't even remember who wrote it. Magical realism seems like it might be a bit meh with this particular story line, but it's definitely one I'm interested in!
Ooh I've heard great things about Speak! I've always intended to pick it up but it never springs to mind when I'm browsing at the bookstore. Will definitely have to check it out!
I am intrigued by the magical realism aspect. But also not so enthusiastic since you say it did not work so well. I am glad the book picked up pace and got your interest even though the beginning was a bit dull
I love magical realism so much but I don't think it quite worked for me on this occasion. I do love some of her other books though so I was still pretty keen on seeing this one to the end!
From this I am kind of getting A Christmas Carol kind of vibes, where there is the past, present and the future helping her to solve through a situation she is currently facing now. Bu then it sounds a bit weirder than that because other quirky elements are thrown is as well. I am curious, but I am not sure this is going to be one for me? I don't want to get too confused and lost in the story… but great review nonetheless!
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Haha there definitley is A Christmas Carol vibe… but like they're all present at the same time? It's kinda weird… It's a little bit hard to judge whether AS King's books are for you because they're all so different from each other as well! I really loved Ask the Passengers but I wasn't enamoured by Still Life With Tornado. But I'd recommend trying to get them out from the library so that you can have a go!
I'm not big on magical realism because I find that it's incredibly hard to fit it in to be realistic without it becoming cheesy and walking the line of a full-blown fantasy, if that makes sense XD I've only read a handful of magical realism books that I've loved, but I have heard good things about this one. Maybe I'll give it a shot sometime 🙂 I'm glad you enjoyed it! Great review 😀
Brittany @ Brittany's Book Rambles
I think I've enjoyed most magical realism books that I've read but I agree that some can be really hit or miss. I'd love to hear about A.S. King's inspiration though because her ideas are pretty wacky!
I haven't read a book by hers. I like quirky books only if they're easy to follow and not too complicated for my simple mind. Lol. I do need to try one of her books at some point, though. I think I have a couple of hers (three including this).
Haha I totally agree, Joy! I think her books are a little bit hit or miss for me because they're so out there. A.S. King is coming to Sydney really soon though so I'm hoping to attend one of her events so that I can hear her speak about her inspiration. Hopefully that'll help me enjoy her books a bit more!
I read this a while ago and mostly enjoyed it. I’d love to read some more AS King. I thought it had a lot of interesting stuff going on, and I especially loved Bruce. Some of the family drama was a bit irritating, though.
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I definitely agree with you on that! I was a bit irritated with Sarah at times and all the drama surrounding her but the book had such an interesting concept that I couldn't help but enjoy it.
I'm not sure if this book is for me, though I did enjoy Ask The Passengers a lot. I'll have to see if I pick this up some time. I have so many other books to read first though. Gosh. XDD
Also A+++ on that pun in the post title. xD
Hahaha thanks Bieke! The post titles are always the hardest part of every post for me. It takes me forever to come up with something clever!!