Book Review: Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King

Following a sixteen-year-old named Sarah who is having a self-proclaimed existential crisis, this book is gritty and strange. This review contains spoilers.

At the very beginning of the novel, I got the impression that Sarah was just an angsty teenager frustrated with life, which made the book seem like a cliché of a YA novel. But I was not familiar with A.S. King. As the story continues, it becomes clear that this author walks the line between reality and magical realism. And as this becomes apparent, it’s also clear that Sarah’s frustrations are beyond ordinary: there are underlying issues Sarah is unwilling to confront. The story isn’t really just about a teenager going through an angsty time. It’s about larger issues.

Sarah is an artist. Or at least she was. But now, she seems unable to draw. She’s frustrated with life, thinking nothing new or original happens. Even though she doesn’t quite realize it, she’s searching for what truly constitutes art. The title is inspired by one of her friends, who draws tornados, claiming that they contain all manner of debris that help define who were are and what we go through.

Sarah is going through her own tornado: she has dropped out of school after some drama with the art club and art class. Worse, she roams around Philadelphia, going to dangerous places, such as a run-down and abandoned school now used for graffiti and worse. She follows people around. Tries eating out of trash cans. And is obsessed with a homeless man who is, in her mind, a real artist. All the while, she mopes over the absence of her brother, who left her when she was ten.

As story continues, Sarah meets several versions of herself: a ten-year-old Sarah who has fresh memories of a disturbing family vacation to Mexico; a twenty-three-year-old Sarah who seems arrogant and annoyed at the teenager’s crisis; and a forty-year-old Sarah who seems to have things more or less together. When I first met the ten-year-old Sarah, I thought for sure she was a manifestation of Sarah’s memories. But then other characters begin to see her as well (and the other Sarahs as well).

We come to learn, through use of varied points of view and flashbacks, that Sarah’s mother has been in an abusive relationship with her husband since they first met. Although she seems down to earth and strong (she’s an ER nurse and has seen everything), she has been making excuses for her husband’s behavior since almost the start of their relationship. And it turns out the couple has stayed together partly for the “benefit” of Sarah and her older brother, Bruce. After a trip to Mexico during which Sarah’s brother was hit—hard—by their father, he decided to leave home (he was in college at the time) and has been out of contact since.

Once I saw that this was not a normal tale—and that it was about the ramifications of abuse and all the people it affects—I was hoping for a bit more. I wanted an additional twist. But the reveal comes slowly, and by the time it came, it was fairly obvious what had happened. But that was part of the point, I think: Sarah and her mother had made excuses and repressed memories so that the obvious was not so obvious to them. The method of storytelling in some ways mimics that. Even Bruce, who took some action, did not do enough to rectify the situation, and the slow reveal emulates that as well. I also liked the fact that Sarah’s brother went on to work with troubled youth—and he explains that sometimes, adults who behave horribly can trace those roots back to childhood. While it’s easy to hate people like Sarah’s father, it’s even suggested that his own childhood helped to shape him into the person he is.

All in all, the book should want to make readers want to reach out to seek help if needed or to offer help to those in need. I can see this book hitting home with readers depending on their experience. Since I’m reading this for a YA bookclub intended to screen books for potential use in schools, I would warn that there is some violence in the book as well as language. But more than the physical violence, the hidden emotional violence and torment is disturbing. Even beyond the abuse of her father, Sarah also encounters bullying at school—an art club that stole her best project and destroyed it so it couldn’t place in the art show—as well as observed a sexual relationship between Ms. Smith (the art teacher) and one of Sarah’s former (female) friends. The literary elements of the novel, for me, balance out this content, making it justifiable for student use with warnings in advance.

On a side note, the existentialist echoes reminded me of the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, especially the sentences: “I am a human being. I am sixteen years old. And that is enough.” To this end, this novel could be paired with other complex texts in a thematic unit on existentialism, such as Stoppard’s play, Hamlet, and Life of Pi.

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