book review · books · shanti

Still Life with Many Questions

“I am a human being. I am sixteen years old. That should be enough.”

I recently read Still Life with Tornado. It’s a book about accepting how you are and art and family and all sorts of complex things, told in a weird way. It’s easy to read, but I struggled to find the ultimate point in it. Still, I really appreciated the complicated storytelling techniques and the whole examination of what it is to question everything in order to become who you are.

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“What happens for the next six days is nothing new. What happens for the next six days is unoriginal.”

This is the story of Sarah. She’s always been told that she’s good at art, but a series of incidents forces her to question everything about who she is, who her family is, and what she wants to do with her life. She drops out of school, then meets herself at different times in the city where she lives. (some American city. I have no idea) Slowly, more details about the event that started the chain of self questioning are revealed, and nothing is exactly sure, because it’s magic, and family ends up being a big part of everything. I don’t want to say too much, because I don’t want to spoil the story–trust me, you want to be blind going into this story. But I struggled to see exactly how it all fit together, and the unexpected turns of the story were annoying. There were also parts where I couldn’t tell if it was real or not, and that somehow irritated me quite a bit.

” Some of those things are original. Some of them happen every day. Some of them are art. Today it doesn’t seem to matter anymore.’

This story is written in a very peculiar way. As well as all the elements of magical realism, it has a very ‘tell-y’ style. Now this isn’t usually my thing, but I didn’t mind it in this story, because a) it really helped to explain the characters and b) what is being told changes frequently, so it’s as if Sarah/Umbrella is keeping the facts straight in her head. There are quite short choppy sentences, which emphasise her disconnection from herself. She’s wandering around, and every chapter another layer is added to the story–a new Sarah, a new revelation, something. There are also flashback chapters set in Mexico, where a lot of things happened that have sort of led up to what is happening the the present tense of the story. Each Mexico chapter ends in a specific way, like “Day Two:over. Day Two: kayak adventure, swimming in a toilet, selfish bastards.” There are seven days and some of them are split into several parts, each of which sort of matches with how Sarah’s understanding of her world is changing. There are also chapters where her mother narrates. This gives another perspective, and in some way makes the content of this book–broken families, broken adult relationships, abuse, dependency, complacency–very adult. I think it could be read as YA or adult, because it’s about adult relationships but also about how those relationships affect children, expressed in the difference between Sarah and Bruce.

“It’s not complicated. No one needs to be better than anyone else. That is not art. That is anti-art. Art is inclusive and it’s the murals all over this city and it’s the kids in the park and the old people you see at the corner grocery who only buy four things at a time. […] Art is as big as Liberty Two. Art is as small as [spoiler]. You get the picture. Nothing new ever really happens.”

This is a book about art, and how it’s entwined with life and identity. Sarah has an existential crisis, and she’s knows that, but it’s more than that, too. She’s starting to notice the cracks in the world around her. What makes this a YA novel, despite lots of adult content, is that Sarah is figuring where she fits in the world, and where she wants to fit. That really resonates, despite the fact that Sarah and I (I mean, and “me”) are otherwise very different. Art is life, and this is an art book. Art breathes. Art matters. People matters, people are art, but what if your father created your relationship with art and he’s not who you thought he was, who you wanted him to be? That’s this story, where you need to know what art is, if it’s a pear, homelessness, your younger sister/self, your own hand, and despite all the confusing elements of the story that don’t quite fit together, it works.

“I wanted quiet for so long. Now I can have it. You have no idea how much I want you to be careful. You have no idea how much I want to save you from what happened to me. Listen closely.”

This a powerful story. I didn’t totally love it, because there was so much going on and I think the author was a little unclear about what exactly they were saying about the non-art stuff sometimes. But in the end, it was worth it, and if you’re ready for a think, I recommend.

What are some of your favourite books with magical realism? And have you read this one? tell me in the comments. Also, it’s Valentines day, but don’t worry, this book is 100% romance free.

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4 thoughts on “Still Life with Many Questions

  1. Ohhh, now that book sounds REALLY intriguing. I love how you described it and I really enjoy, at times, reading books that leave me a bit confused and really makes me think. I might need to think about it before adding it to my TBR 🙂 Thank you for this lovely review! 🙂

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    1. It is a fascinating book for sure! It definitely made me think about why society focuses so heavily on originality. I think it’s worth reading, as long as you know that confusion/weirdness comes with the territory.

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  2. Interesting review- kind of tantalizes in the way you describe the story unfolding and yet you have doubts about not quite sure if it all fit together in the end. But i reckon through the yeah-but-what-did-it-all-mean retrospectoscope is not the only way to look at a story. If a story draws you in and sparks off weird and wild resonances inside you as it goes and leaving you not quite knowing what it all meant… If the process really was like that then that is valid in itself isn’t it, even if you are not sure what the final product means? Stuff like Gabriel Garcia Marquez works for me like that and a novel I once read called “The Mistress of Spices” . but that’s me.

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    1. I do defintiely see that, though my English class pushes me to find themeatic statements from books that show a clear perspective on the issue. I had similar problems with another novel called Land of Love and Drowning, actually. There is more than stories than meaning, and perhaps that’s a false way to judge them.

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