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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