I received this book for free from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King
Published by Penguin on October 11th 2016
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Family, Marriage & Divorce, Art, Social Themes, Physical & Emotional Abuse
Format: Electronic ARC
Source: Penguin Random House
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Sarah is in the middle of an existential crisis. She stops going to school and spends her days visiting abandoned structures in Philadelphia. An event at an art show triggered her crisis, but she actually started falling apart a long time ago. The key to unlocking the cause of her disillusionment may be confronting the events of a family vacation to Mexico when she was ten-years-old. Her older brother Bruce hasn’t talked to the family in the six years since then. She can’t remember what happened and her parents refuse to talk about it.
Here’s what I think. I think we’re really smart when we’re young. Ten-year-old Sarah is smarter than I am because I’m six years older. Twenty-three-year-old Sarah is dumber than me because I’m sixteen. Someone somewhere was way older and richer and dumber than all of us and paid forty-five million dollars for a bunch of dots. I think this kind of smart isn’t something they can measure with tests. I think it’s like being psychic or being holy. If I could be anyone for the rest of my life, I would be a little kid. (Sarah)
Sarah was an aspiring artist and I loved how that part of her life is integrated into the story, especially the concept of a tornado as something that is one thing on the outside, but another thing on the inside. Sarah is at a point in her life where adults are constantly asking her about her future, but she hasn’t even dealt with her past. She’s unable to stay in the present, which is where the future and past Sarahs come in. Versions of Sarah at different stages in life materialize to help her process her trauma. Ten-year-old Sarah is still a happy kid and the memories of the vacation are still fresh for her. Twenty-three-year-old Sarah can barely remember being sixteen and thinks sixteen-year-old Sarah is silly and dramatic. Sixteen-year-old Sarah looks up to forty-year-old Sarah who is the most self-assured. What surprised me is that these Sarahs aren’t hallucinations; other people can see them.
The older people get, the less they can do about things. They seem to be stuck. They seem to be glue. (Sarah)
Sarah’s mom Helen gets to tell her side of the story. Helen’s chapters help illuminate parts that Sarah doesn’t understand. Helen’s story shows how easy it is to get stuck in a bad situation and how hard it is to see in the middle of a storm.* It also shows how attempts to make things better can actually make them worse. Likewise, sometimes making things worse can make them better.
There are also flashbacks to the family vacation. Everything seems relatively normal at first, but there are clear indications that there is something stirring under the surface. (“Can’t you just pretend to have a good time?” “Why pretend? Aren’t we doing enough pretending as it is?”) Between her mother’s chapters and the day-by-day reveal of the trip to Mexico, we get a clearer picture of why Sarah is so depressed.
But now it’s been so long that if I bring it up, I’ll look like a girl who can’t let go of things. Teenage girls always have to let go of things. If we bring up anything, people say we’re bitches who can’t just drop it. (Sarah)
I identified with twenty-three-year-old Sarah at first, because I didn’t know if would be interested in sixteen-year-old Sarah for the entire book! Like the protagonist in We Are the Ants, Sarah is depressed and expresses repetitive thoughts. She has received so many (unintentionally) damaging messages from trusted adults, that she now feels very little control over her life. She wants to disappear and is no longer interested in the hobbies she used to love. Sarah knows that “breaking your brain is the same as breaking your arm”, but she still feels shame about her situation. Sarah initially sees her problems as too small to bother anyone with, but she learns that her problems do matter. She doesn’t have to be strong and deal with it alone. It’s refreshing that romance was not part of this book. Sarah’s potential recovery has to come from within herself with the support of her family.
Here’s why I like making things. I like making things because when I was born, everything I was born into was already made for me. Art let me surround myself with something different. Something new. Something real. Something that was mine. I don’t know if this means I could also be a competent architect. Or a car mechanic. Or a carpenter. I just like constructing new things that are real. I believe this is a side effect of growing from seed in soil made of lies. I believe this is a side effect of being born into ruins—this need for construction. (Sarah)
Still Life with Tornado deals with mental health, the many forms of abuse, and family issues. Sarah’s story is much darker than mine, but I could relate to the disillusionment that springs from a confusing parental situation that’s never directly addressed. I loved the concept of different Sarahs, the way art played a part in the story, and Sarah’s realizations at the end. If you liked We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson, you might be interested in this book.
You can’t change people with love. It doesn’t work that way. (Helen)
* I was reminded of a quote from Cruel Beautiful World: “You don’t know what you’re seeing sometimes, when you see it …..You don’t know how bad it can get.”