Artist’s surreal awakening
by One-Minute Book Reviews: Laura Stevenson
Jun 05, 2017 | 2401 views | 0 0 comments | 131 131 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Still Life With Tornado by A. S. King

Dutton Books, 2016

Sixteen-year-old Sarah knows there are no original ideas, only imitations and fragments of thoughts of art already existing. Miss Smith, her art teacher, has assured her class that this is so. One of her friends has drawn a tornado, which she says is original because it contains, unseen, a car, pieces of a house, stale cornflakes, and other things. She says “art isn’t supposed to be literal,” and that her originality lies in including the unseen contents of the tornado in her picture. Sarah scoffs, but she is so discouraged by her inability to create something original that suddenly, after years as a promising artist, she can’t draw. Not even a pear. And she drops not only out of her hostile teacher’s art class, but out of school.

Thus begins Sarah’s “existential crisis.” She wanders around Philadelphia, partly following a half-crazy sidewalk artist whom she thinks might be original. In the ruins of a derelict school, she meets her ten-year-old self, recently back from the vacation in Mexico that sixteen-year- old Sarah can hardly remember. She does remember that her beloved much older brother left the family right after it, but she has no idea why; she has until recently accepted her father’s story that he joined a religious cult and is no longer part of the family. Her 10-year- old self, however, does remember where her brother went and why, and gradually guides older Sarah into the tornado of her family’s toxic existence, in which her father has physically abused both her mother and brother, but never herself. And in which her mother, an intelligent, experienced ER nurse, has denied the effect of the abuse “for the sake of the children” – until Sarah’s collapse makes her realize she has lost her son and is losing her daughter.

There are many novels written about parental abuse and its horrors. This one is exceptional (perhaps even original) psychologically because it demonstrates the effect of abuse even on those who didn’t suffer it directly. From a literary standpoint, King skillfully makes Sarah’s gradual progression of memories into a mystery that encourages the reader to follow clues. The clever plotting, plus the wonderful perspective given by the inclusion of three other Sarahs (ages 10, 23, and 40) make this an amazingly perceptive psychological study. Ultimately, Sarah finds out who she is and why she can’t draw. But, by the by, in the passage at the end it is easy to read over, recovering 16-year-old Sarah notices that her 40-year-old self is an unmarried and childless artist. Smith is clever enough to leave the reader to decide whether that truth demonstrates independence or damage.

Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.
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