Still Life With Tornado, A.S. King

Monday, July 09, 2018

What would you say if you could go back in time and talk to your past self? Would you tell yourself Still Life With Tornado uses this idea of traveling back to your past selves explore how our past, present, and future are bound up together through the memories and dreams each of us holds.
to avoid the things you regret? Would you want to relive previous stages of your life? How would that change the person you became? A.S. King's novel

Sarah, once a gifted artist, can't even summon the skill to draw something as simple as her own hand. After a falling out with the art club kids she thought were her friends, Sarah stops going to school, instead wandering around the town where she lives, searching for anything that is truly original. One day on her ramblings she meets her 23-year-old self riding a bus. This 23-year-old version of Sarah is angry, though she won't tell 16 year-old Sarah why. Soon after, she runs into her 10-year-old-self, sunburned from a family trip to Mexico that present-Sarah barely remembers, but which was apparently a turning point in the life of her family. Finally, 40-year-old Sarah shows up, firm but kind, demanding present-Sarah remember what happened in Mexico, so she can face the trauma and start to heal. The more time Sarah spends with her past and future selves, the more she is drawn into both her memories of the Mexico vacation, and the truth about her parents' toxic relationship.

There are a lot of moving pieces with this narrative. There are chapters from Sarah's perspective, flashbacks to the Mexico vacation, and short sections narrated by Sarah's mother, revealing the details of her relationship with Sarah's father and how their family got to the low point they are currently in. Despite the jumping around, the story hold together nicely, with well-paced revelations about Sarah's life and family. The past and future Sarahs are not hallucinations; present-Sarah doesn't have dissociative identity disorder, nor do we discover at the end it was all a dream. Sarah's mother and brother eventually see all of the other Sarahs too. While King offers no explanation for where they came from or how they got there, it's clear that the existential crisis present-Sarah is having has caused them to appear. King perfectly captures Sarah in all of her stages; 10-year-old Sarah's personality has clear connections to present-Sarah, and present-Sarah is reflected in the personalities of the older Sarahs. I was impressed by King's ability to create the same character at four very different stages of life that really did feel like they could be the same person, all while having them interact with each other.

Ultimately, this novel explores the impact of domestic violence on families, specifically on children. Sarah's father's rage and violence create a brittle home environment, one in which both parents are present, but clearly not in true relationship with each other. Like many children growing up in violent households, Sarah perceives the long, hostile silences and frequent arguments as normal. Her home life can't be that bad, right? Eventually, through the gentle (and not so gentle) coaxing and cajoling of the other Sarahs, present-Sarah is able to confront the sad and scary truths behind her parents' apparent hatred of each other, and her brother's seemingly inexplicable absence from their lives.

As in her other books, King creates a detailed and well-developed internal life for Sarah. Eventually, the reader learns what the incident was that caused Sarah to stop going to school. That incident became the catalyst for the personal crisis that led Sarah to confront the realities of her home situation. The incident also explains why Sarah suddenly found herself unable to make art, which up to this point had been her outlet for the stress of living with parents who were constantly in conflict. As usual, King has given us a well-crafted, beautifully told story that shows her deep understanding of how teenagers think and feel. I think Reality Boy might still be my favorite of hers, but this one is a close second.

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