A New Year of Books! Still Life with Tornado by AS King
I don't make New Year's resolutions, but I do spend time at the end of every year to reflect and set some goals for the coming calendar pages. One goal that I didn't know I had until I found myself acting on it while trudging along on the treadmill at the gym was to interact more with the books I read.
The book that started it all, the one I finished around midnight as Emeric nursed and my husband snored so loudly I ended up smacking him with a pillow, was this: Still Life with Tornado by AS King. I'll admit, while I've read five or six books since November, this was not my favorite. Without more preamble, my thoughts:
This is what happens when an author wants to write a book about abuse and mental illness but doesn’t want it to end up in the “abuse and mental illness book” ghetto. Call it magical realism and pow! No ghetto, the author seems totally ORIGINAL (word of the day—teehee!), and the author doesn’t have to think twice about research or consistency. I get it. I have a manuscript about some of the same things, and I'd love a way to keep it from being ghettoized as an "abuse book." Smart and convenient and ORIGINAL, this.
There are many, many things to like about this book. For one, it does come across as being very ORIGINAL. Partly because the reader is trying hard throughout to figure out what's going on. What is real? Is the protagonist crazy? Is she hallucinating? And the writing, metaphor, flow of each chapter is really quite lovely. Each chapter is its own tiny universe, circling round to a beautiful conclusion: an image, a thought, something that makes the prose read like poetry. In addition, the characters and setting are well drawn with a distinct sense of place and unique (ORIGINAL) character voices.
I also quite liked the structure. The gradual revelation of this “issue” from long ago and the “problem” in art class. That said, the gradual revelation was really, really gradual. Really gradual. I discovered a way to work it, however, and about fifty pages in started reading the first sentence of each paragraph and skimming the dialogue. A lot of dialogue seemed like window dressing (Hi, Hey, How are you, Fine, We're saying nothing and everything all at once, I know, but we're not Original) and the writing was so pretty it proved at times to be not very important to the actual story. So yeah, I skipped it. The pacing improved a thousand percent.
One weird thing I’m undecided on is the thinness of the cast, a minimalism. While the setting took on personality, and language danced and reverberated, it all took place on a near-empty stage. There are very few characters—the protagonist has no friends (minus one we don’t really meet/know), and few other people in general. In one sense this adds to the isolation of the protagonist and the claustrophobic closeness of the point of view. In another it makes the protagonist seem all the more narcissistic and I think made her, for me at least, less likable.
Overall I found the book engrossing (in my fast skim of it), and the characters and structure and storyline continue to linger. I do think it’s a bit of a cop-out to “hide” mental illness in the cloak of Magical Realism, and I didn’t wholly believe the abuse aspect. But from my experience working with victims of domestic violence, I know abusers are as varied as as the bacteria assortment at an all you can eat buffet. I consider this a slow, pretty, confusing read that either takes seriously the long-term effects of abuse (with a mental illness read) or conversely uses abuse as a plot device to seem, oh, what is that word… ORIGINAL. I choose to read it as the former.