Still Life with Tornado
Dutton, 2016 304 pages
At sixteen years old Sarah is having a major life crisis. Her art teacher has told her that nothing is original and the comment sends her into a tailspin. She has decided that since nothing is new or original than why bother? Sarah stops going to school, choosing instead to wander around the streets of her hometown of Philadelphia, trailing a homeless artist and wandering through an abandoned school building. Slowly her story is revealed, both the present problem of a bullying incident and inappropriate teacher's behavior and an ill-fated trip to Mexico with her family six years prior. Other chapters give her mother's point of view as we see the dynamic in the household with an abusive father at the reigns. Sarah has blocked out most of her father's past behavior and the real reason that her beloved brother has left the family. She is visited by a incarnation of herself at ten, followed by herself at twenty-three and then forty. The three Sarahs help her to process her past, come to terms with her present, and reach out to her estranged brother. Eventually Mom also sees the Sarahs and finds the courage to make a move out of her abusive relationship. By book's end Sarah is back to her single self, has accepted the hurts from the past and has forged a plan to move ahead, realizing that there are some things in this life that are original, mainly ourselves.
A.S. King is one of the best talents at work today writing for teenagers. She is almost too good in that I often don't understand her books completely. This book is brilliantly written, but a little too out-there for my poor brain and probably for that of the average teenager. More readable than last year's I Crawl Through It, this book is still a bit less tangible than her earlier works. Her first book The Dust of 100 Dogs was so entertaining in a weird way that I still think about this book years after reading it. Still Life with Tornado is a bit over the top for teens, who end to be pretty literal and may not be able to wrap their brains around an existential crisis. At first I thought that Sarah was insane and the other Sarahs were existing in her mind only, but once Mom and eventually the brother sees the Sarahs the story required a real leap of faith. I like that King does not immediately reveal that Sarah is from an abusive household or tell the secret behind the real reason she is no longer attending school. The story is told slowly, peeling Sarah back layer by layer until we finally get to her core and the reality that she is fighting to keep buried. Mom's point of view is important in order for the reader to see why a seemingly intelligent person stays in an abusive relationship. The brother character is a bit too perfect and it is maybe too convenient that he is employed counseling troubled teens, but Sarah really needs a functional adult in her life, so it is with relief that he shows up and saves the day. A great choice for smart readers, yet a bit of a head-scratcher for the average bear.