Thank you to Text Publishing for the review copy!
Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King was a heart-breaking and a cleverly written book. I especially appreciated the unflinchingly powerful ways it looked at the pain within a fragile family, and the thematic role of art and originality throughout the book.
The story is primarily told from the point of view of 16-year-old Sarah, who is going through what she refers to as an ‘existential crisis’. She’s suddenly stopped going to school, is unable to create art, feels dazed and not-quite-right – and she’s started encountering past and future (10- and 23-year-old) versions of herself as she wanders aimlessly around the city.
The answers are deep within the darkest truths of her family, regarding the relationship between her parents and her brother, who left them and whom she hasn’t contacted, since something happened when they went on a family vacation to Mexico six years ago. Through Sarah’s present point of view, the story of what happened six years ago, and her mother’s perspective, the lies and pain are heartbreakingly revealed.
Firstly, A.S. King’s writing was really engaging. The narrative was immersive (I finished it really quickly) and so clearly conveying how dazed Sarah was and, later on, the pain she was going through with powerful, haunting writing. The strong writing extended to the use of tension throughout the book. The revelations here, at least to me, weren’t completely surprising twists, but were heavily built up beforehand, and I saw certain things coming. What this did was increase the sense of foreboding, which was really effective considering the serious subject matter, and made the emotional and visceral impact hit harder when the truths about what happened in Sarah’s family and regarding her art came to the surface.
I think about still lifes…that’s what I had. A still life. The more I pay attention, the more I see I was wrong.
The multiple points of view/story threads throughout were also used really well – the past was woven in really well with the revelations in the present. Sarah’s mother’s point of view, which I really appreciated the insight of, was gut-wrenching, empathetic and relevant
There were magical realism elements in the story through Sarah (and later on, others) encountering her past and future selves. It was a clever way to move the story forward, forcing her to reflect and question on who she was and would become, as well as simply being interesting and amusing through the interactions with her past and future selves (e.g. meeting other people and all coming together at once, at one point later in the book).
When you learn the truth late, you doubt everything that ever happened in your whole life because your whole life was a lie.
I loved how the protagonist was an artist, the way the narrative delved into her difficulties associated with this, and the way it was tied it in to the rest of the plot. The themes regarding originality in the book were unique and often relatable. We rarely, and I would love to see more of, such stories regarding art-specific concepts like originality (the most prominent here), the ups and downs of creation, comparing yourself to others, aspiration, the power of art and its role in our lives.
“You know what art is?” he asks. “Art is the truth.”
Definitely recommended, and be prepared for the heavier themes and emotional impact.
Highlight for content warning (NOTE – potential spoiler) domestic violence/abuse
Have you read Still Life with Tornado, or any of A.S. King’s books? Australians – are you going to any of her upcoming events here? Are there any other books you’ve read where an artist is the protagonist?