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Still Life With Tornado

still-life-with-tornadoOh, A.S. King! Every year, a new novel. Every year, a bold move to expand what we think of as a novel. I’m not sure if I’m a King fan, but I find myself drawn to her books year after year because I trust them to be engrossing reading experiences, even if I have an Alice-in-Wonderland feeling the entire time, unsure of what’s real and what’s hallucinatory, unsure where I stand or how to even approach thinking about what’s in front of me.

This year’s offering is pure King — but it’s also accessible in a way we haven’t seen since Ask the Passengers. And I’d argue it’s better than King’s Printz honor-winning Please Excuse Vera Dietz. In short, this one is a true contender.

Still Life With Tornado, A.S. King
Dutton, October 2016
Reviewed from ARC

King excels when she examines the emotional weight of teenage lives. Her trademark surrealism/magic realism/mind f-ery (magic surrealism, maybe?) is the perfect device for the examination of trauma, repression, and adolescent angst. 16-year-old Sarah, around whom the story centers, can’t admit anything, even to herself. She’s kept so many things locked up for so many years that she can’t see what’s happening around her, and she’s created such a deep black hole of emotions — they go in and never see light again — that it’s permeated her ability to deal with everything and anything. King’s creative twist is that Sarah keeps meeting other versions of herself: 10-year-old Sarah, 23-year-old Sarah, even briefly 40-year-old Sarah. It could be twee, it could fail, but instead it works. It works for the plot, it works with the theme of what we acknowledge and when, and it works on a meta level as a way to examine adolescence: sandwiched between two selves who consider her a downer, “silly and dramatic,” 16-year-old Sarah must learn to take herself seriously and be less silly and dramatic, but not less aware of her own pain, if she wants to grow into her future self.

The language here has a rhythm; Sarah narrates in simple, thoughtful language. Her voice is distinct, funny/grim — not laugh out loud, but laced with a sense of absurdity — and given to making everything sound almost portentous — a function of relatively short sentences? As I reread, I see too that while the voice sounds natural and authentically teen-aged, it’s laced with repeating imagery and foreshadowing and clues to what Sarah isn’t even admitting to herself, which further demonstrates King’s utter control over her writing.

There are also chapters from Sarah’s mother, in her own first-person narration which is entirely distinct from Sarah’s voice. Helen’s cadence and thought patterns are distinct from Sarah’s; it’s a rare thing for a shifting first person narrative to never trip up the reader but here it’s impossible to confuse the Sarah chapters and the Helen chapters.

This is not a plot-heavy book; more of a study of character and, even more than that, a study of what happens when you’ve spent years under immense pressure. (In the darkness of the tornado, because there’s some pretty overt imagery here, which ok, not subtle, but teens aren’t as subtle as they think they are so it weirdly works, despite being really obvious at times.) This is a household that has been poised on the brink of a catastrophic moment for years, and Sarah has been crushed by the tension without really understanding what the pressure is. The stress of that existence is what has led to Sarah’s break from school and all of her friends; she’s isolated herself, following two triggering incidents: a social media contact from her “runaway” brother, which brings back memories of a family trip when she was 10, and a cruel bullying incident at school tied to Sarah knowing something she shouldn’t. Knowledge, art, the nature of creativity: these are the themes swirling around Sarah’s desire both to understand her family and to avoid the pain that understanding will inevitably bring.

The treatment of art is especially noteworthy. Sarah obsesses that “nothing is original,” that she can no longer create art. She follows a homeless man because she sees originality in his art; she takes herself to an art museum because her relationship with art is as consumer and creator. Art is the center of her conflict and the thing she may need; pain and art are inextricably inertwined, and art is what helps Sarah see that her pain can make her stronger. The novel provides one of the most sophisticated looks at what it means to be a teenager and an artist I’ve ever read, without ever being inconsistent, despite the depth, with Sarah’s voice or emotional perspective. This same balancing act is present in Sarah’s conflicted feelings about her peers and her art teacher and the art show which is at the heart of that second triggering incident.

I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’m trying to be careful with what I say, but basically it boils down to: this is a brilliant book. It’s smartly written. It’s carefully written. It’s beautifully written. It will make you roll your eyes, and then sympathize; it will make you feel an aching emptiness and then a cathartic release. It is, in short, a deeply deserving book and it would look very good with a shiny P sticker. (Ok, it wouldn’t, there’s no place on the cover for a sticker and if it wins the committee will spend an hour trying to figure out how to manage adding the seal without obscuring a design detail. But whatever, figuratively it will look very good.)

I’m so glad I finally wrote this up before it was too late to vote for it in the Pyrite, because the more I think on this, and the more I reread, the more I see that this really is in the very top for 2016. I’m excited to hear what others have to say — although five stars and a host of year-end accolades have me thinking most of you will probably agree.


About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.


  1. It’s been years since I read Please Ignore, Vera Dietz but I remember thinking the book was brilliant. Since that time I have read every AS King to cross by desk and though I think they are all well-written it seems to me that she is plowing the same ground she plowed with Vera…variations on a theme. Her writing IS brilliant but her works aren’t unique, compared to her own body of work. Every one of her books has a character who is falling apart, that person has an existential crisis of some sort but is finally saved by another person (usually an adult) who finally pays attention and becomes available to help. As much as I like this book, I think the RealCommittee will pass over this book for this reason.

  2. My first A.S. King was Everybody Sees the Ants and I adore that book, but each I’ve read since has been an increasing disappointment, from Ask the Passengers which I 90% love to Please Ignore Vera Dietz which I appreciated but wasn’t blown away by, and then decreasing returns over the years… I have the same issues as Anne, that it feels increasingly like she’s retreading the same territory. Which is, of course, irrelevant from a Printz perspective, but certainly shaped my read–and was part of why I shelved this one partway through. I’d slogged through I Crawl Through It last year and this was being as much of a slog, without feeling like I was getting anything new out of it.

    From what I did read–75 pages? I didn’t get to any Helen chapters, I don’t think, or if I did they were unmemorable for me–I found the writing appropriately excellent but the treatment of theme heavy-handed and maudlin, and the character study disappointing–the Sarahs were all disappointingly one-note. Karyn, you complained about The Lie Tree being a bit too obvious in its messaging–which I largely disagree with, but I’m also largely in the camp of a 10-to-14 age range for that book, which still leaves it in Printz territory–but this is the book I found too obvious in its messaging. I couldn’t get past the eye-roll to the sympathy–unlike, say, The Serpent King where I rolled my eyes at Lydia constantly but also felt super-powerfullydear gods that was me with different details.

    I generally have little patience for books heavy on navel-gazing, and this is pretty much pure navel-gazing; if I was on a committee I’m sure I’d read and reread this one and would find things to appreciate. As I recall, I was lukewarm about it when I put it down… and have grown to actively dislike it more as it’s sat in the back of my mind.

  3. I had the strangest reaction to the font selected for this book. I found it very hard and somewhat unpleasant to read. Which didn’t set my reading of it off on the right foot, for sure. I agree that there is something beautiful about the way that King writes but there is becoming a sameness as well, which is hard to quibble with too much when the writing is generally so good.

    • Karyn Silverman says

      Final copy or ARC? I didn’t notice the font particularly here, but I totally had this issue with Rani Patel, and bought the e-book (so I could control the font) of it to make sure I was giving the book a fair read.

  4. This book is my top pick for the Printz this year. I loved it. I loved how it managed to juggle being about issues without ever becoming an Issue Book (those are important but can smother story); I loved how twisty the storytelling was, figuring out Sarah’s vagueness about the school she was actually in, and which conversations actually took place; I love the deft touch most of all. I’d argue this is a subtle book because of the way Sarah buries the real stuff she’s dealing with, dancing around it and only revealing it piecemeal – not really to the reader, but to herself.

    but teens aren’t as subtle as they think they are

    I sat there waving my hands and marveling at the way the almost bluntness of the metaphor just WORKED in context. I was so impressed.

    I’m hoping the committee won’t have King fatigue; as someone who hasn’t been especially drawn by anything since Everybody Sees the Ants (which was BRILLIANT), I was blown away by Still Life with Tornado.

  5. Karyn Silverman says

    As someone who often thinks King does interesting things that fail to move me, what struck me here was that for once it worked — yes, she uses similar themes, but here it all came together for me. But clearly this is not a consensus title!

  6. I listened to this on audio and it was FANTASTIC. I think if you had a hard time with the print version you should give the audio a try.

    I definitely have my fingers crossed for this one when it comes to Jan 23!

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