Still Life with Tornado


By A.S. King

* * * * *


I don’t know how to feel about this novel. Did I like it? Did I absolutely hate it? Who knows. Either way, here we go.



“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.”



Books like this bother me. It’s not the contents of the book itself that bother me, it’s my feelings after the book that annoy me. I never know how to rate these books. I never know how to review them. That said, let me try to get my thoughts in order and make sense of this. If I fail, I am sorry. Let’s do this.

First, this book is teenage angst at its finest. Let me just put that out there.

Sarah, the main character, is a sixteen-year-old artist who has wants nothing more than to drop out of school, follow homeless people around the city, and go on a search for an ‘original idea’. Except, of course, she goes on to remind us at every other paragraph that nothing is original, and the search for it is futile.

She is a whiny little girl who is sad because the world isn’t going her way. She complains about originality and how no one has it, and yet she is the cliché of angst filled teens dealing with first world problems.

Or so it would seem.

The truth is that Sarah’s existential crisis is not a crisis at all. Mostly, I think, she is battling with PTSD from an event that happened in Mexico, six years ago. The events that changed her life. The event that drove her 19 year old brother to walk away and never return to his family. An event that she has blocked from her memory.

The first half of the story was all about Sarah. It was about her being dramatic and philosophising  about what it means to be ‘original’. It is about her going through an emotional breakdown. Here she starts journey of self-discovery as she encounters three different versions of herself. Her at 10, 23, and 40 years old. And frankly, despite the concept, it was very boring.

Sarah, besides being unoriginal, is actually kind of bland. While the writing was beautiful, the execution of the character was in no way engaging. The real fun in the story comes when the focus shifts from Sarah, and onto those around her. When we finally start going into what really happened in Mexico.

You see, this book lies to you. It is, in fact, not about Sarah. It is about life, and choices, and sacrifices. It is about her mother and the life she has been forced to live. It is about her brother and the suffering that he has been made to endure. It is about her father and the the consequences of his actions. This, is where the story comes alive. This is where the story becomes real.

Sarah is still a whiny, boring little girl. And I am not saying that what she went through does not validate her actions, I am saying that she simply came across the page as an extremely annoying person. All the other Sarah’s are boring also.

It’s her brother and mother who take the cake, her mother’s chapters being the most interesting and engaging. It’s her father that defines the story.  It is the relationships between them and the complexity of them that make this novel worth the read. They were the things that pushed me through it and made me sort of like it in the end. Sadly, the moment after reading this book, it started getting erased from my mind, not holding like some more memorable reads have.

The book had its up and downs, it’s good and bad. I might have actually sort of bumped it to three stass, except that it was in no way memorable. So, do I recommend this book? I don’t know. Books like this always depend on the reader, as it was not a bad written novel at all.

Before you read it, if you decide to read itm these are things you should also know. This book has all the metaphors. And I mean ALL OF THEM. This book has a lot of repetition. This book deals with difficult topics. This book is magical realism, basically just accept all the weird things within it.

If you do not mind these things, if you can make it past the first few chapters and not hate Sarah, then this book might be for you. If not, don’t bother. That is the only advice I can give you.

If you have read it, let me know what you thought of it. Did you like it? What did you think of Sarah?


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