Friday, 28 April 2017

Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

Publication date: 11th October 2016
Published by: Dutton books for YAs
Genre: YA Contemporary

Publisher's synopsis

“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.”

My Review

Warning - may contain spoilers

The idea of this book - a sixteen year old being visited by past and future versions of herself - intrigued me.  The reader discovers quite early in the story that Sarah keeps skipping school, and after a short time stops going altogether.  When asked why, she says it is because nothing original happens at school.   As her art teacher has pointed out 'there is no such thing as an original idea'.  A response like that raises eyebrows and it soon became clear that something happened at school that caused her to stop going, but she is not ready to share what it is.  It seems as though Sarah is going through an emotional crisis that is affecting her mental well-being.  The event that occurred at school is only a catalyst to something that has been brewing for some time. Something traumatic occurred in her past that she is not fully aware of. Sarah's crisis is that, until now, she has not had the chance to fully face up to her trauma.

This book covers some serious issues about a troubled family.  It is a thought-provoking story and I found myself contemplating the issues as I read.  In this book King has explored how people deal with emotional trauma: the malevolent approach, as demonstrated by Sarah's father, the benevolent approach, as demonstrated by her brother and the 'bury one's head in the sand' approach, as demonstrated by her mother.

The visits from Sarah's younger and older selves are a sort of therapy for her.  It is interesting that they are not imaginary since everyone else can see and speak to these versions as well (therapy for the whole family?).  

The book also has her mother narrate to us about how she met her husband and the choices/mistakes she made along the way.  We see how powerless and guilty she feels.  She concludes by giving the readers advice - don't do what I did, learn from my mistakes. 

What lets the book down for me is the writing style. The author had Sarah spend too much time psychoanalysing herself for the purpose of helping the readers understand what is going on. This is also the point of her mother's story.  It is as if the author is not confident that readers are able to work this stuff out by themselves - which is a pity.  I would contemplate Sarah's situation and draw my own conclusions (some of which I have described in the first paragraph of this review) and would then have my thoughts confirmed by Sarah informing me she is 'going through an existential crisis', that her mental health is at risk, that she has experienced trauma, etc. I felt as though I was being spoon fed ideas (when, as far as those ideas were concerned, I was way ahead of her and she was playing catch up).  Some may say this could be because I am not the target audience and therefore am too mature for this book.  I disagree.  Teenagers don't need to be spoon fed, either.

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