Book review: Still Life with Tornado, A. S. King

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

A. S. King’s latest, Still Life with Tornadofollows Sarah, a 16-year-old trapped in a slightly surreal world where everything around her is falling apart. For me, it didn’t quite work — but I don’t necessarily think you will feel that way, and in some senses, this book is a great example of the fact that not all books are for all people. For all that I didn’t get that into it, I didn’t think it was a bad book, I just felt like the narrative conceit wasn’t for me. But it might be for someone else! Sorry, that was really confusing.

Sarah tells the story, which jumps around from place to place (almost as though a tornado is touching down on her life), so we see her at the present time, we see a series of events unfolding during an ill-fated trip to Mexico, and we get flashes of an incident at school that led her to decide to just stop going. At the same time, we’re seeing tensions between her parents rise while she tries to reach out to her estranged brother, and she meets avatars of herself at various ages. These avatars are also, perplexingly, visible to everyone else.

So there’s a lot going on here, between the surrealism and the nonlinear narrative style. But there’s also something else: Sara is the quintessential jaded teenager, convinced that nothing at all can ever be original (and frequently reminding the reader of this), in a way that effectively freezes her. She feels powerless to do anything, everything feels pointless, and she doesn’t really see any purpose in trying to do anything. It would be ridiculous to try to pick up art again, or go to school, or take any meaningful steps to change her life.

Which is where I get into the not for me/maybe great for others thing. For me as an adult reader, Sarah is extremely irritating, and she’s an iteration of a character I see over and over again, the jaded, affected, listless teenager. I do not find an exploration of this character interesting because I have seen her explored way too often — I want to engage with books about teens who are not this. However, teenage readers haven’t spent the last two decades reading this character over and over again, and moreover, a lot of them feel like Sarah does (I certainly once did and probably would have loved this book when I was 14).

The nonlinear narrative style also doesn’t really work for me not because it’s done a lot (though it is), but because it creates a sense of artificial tension and suspense that for me as an adult reader didn’t really pay off. And maybe readers of any age would feel the same way — it’s hard to tell. It’s really tricky to do nonlinear well (believe me, I have tried and failed spectacularly), and sometimes you thread the needle, but sometimes the thread pops to the side at the last minute. A lot of that depends on where readers are in their lives and as people — I honestly find the use of nonlinear narrative to create dramatic tension a little stressful, but that’s a personal issue, not an objective literary one. Someone else may approach the same text and be totally stoked.

I want to be clear here: With both of the above complaints, I am not knocking teens. I don’t think that teens are unsophisticated readers who are totally fine with formulaic characters and narrative approaches, because Sarah, and the narrative approach, aren’t formulaic here. What they are is done a lot, but when you’ve read, say, 10,000 books over the course of your life, you’re going to view these things very differently than someone who has read 500, or 1,000, or even 2,000. You need to read lots of things to figure out what you like, and to learn to tell the difference between things that are done well and things that are done poorly. I think that overall, this is a good book for people to read if they are exploring jaded teenagers and/or nonlinear narratives. King is a solid writer and there are lots of interesting things going on here, including an excellent descriptive voice. It’s just that I have read hundreds of versions of this book and I’m done exploring that particular avenue of the literary world for now.

Teens, on the other hand, are coming to books fresh, which is superb, and I’m honestly a little jealous. In the last few years I’ve read a lot of YA like this — books that leave me kind of ‘meh’ that I think others may actually really enjoy. This is not a reflection on these books or on YA, but on me as a reader. Some of these books make me wish I was 14 again so I could explore these ideas for the first time instead of the 261st. And that’s fine, and good, and actually as it should be, because YA authors should not be writing books for adults. Or if they do, they should be selling those as adult books! A. S. King isn’t writing for me, but for actual young adults. Some YA is really timeless and enjoyable for people of all ages, while other YA is not so much — which, again, doesn’t make it bad, it just means that it’s really beautifully suited to the age group it is intended for, and not for others.

If you’re an actual young adult, I think you might really enjoy Still Life with Tornado. If you aren’t, you might enjoy it anyway! Or you might not! I realise that’s not a terribly helpful conclusion, but, guess that, this book wasn’t written for you, or for me, and that’s okay, because one thing that’s happening in the flowering of YA is the sense that fewer and fewer books for teens are actually for teens. This is an exception to that trend, and it’s a good thing.

Image: NOAA Photo Library, Flickr