A damaged girl's various selves conspire to reveal all

A. S. King depicts a protagonist bumping into other versions of herself from the past and future. 

STILL LIFE WITH TORNADO
A. S. King
Text Publishing

By CAROLINE HUNTER

This novel is a surreal little number that will test your suspension of disbelief but, metaphorically, it works well.

Written as young adult fiction, Still Life with Tornado is certainly sophisticated enough for readers beyond that age group, crediting its intended audience with insight and intelligence.

I loved the rich imagination of it, once I got used to the other-worldliness. And by that, I'm referring to the protagonist bumping into other versions of herself from the past and future and striking up conversation with them. Other people can see them too, which only adds to the oddness, especially when her other selves come home to meet the family.

Sarah is 16 and in the midst of a crisis at home and at school, although the reasons for that take some time to emerge. Things have got so dire at school she refuses to go back, instead spending her days taking buses round town (Philadelphia), following a homeless man and attending make-believe classes in a derelict school.

While weighing up whether to reject her current identity (and considering Umbrella as a new name), Sarah's younger and older renditions turn up, further disrupting her sense of self. One wonders why she is so disturbed, but gradually the events leading up to her disintegration begin to emerge as a series of flashbacks, in particular recollections of a disastrous family holiday in Mexico.

Something happened to drive her older brother away and Sarah can't remember what. However, she is aware something is wrong with her parents, whose toxic behaviour is linked to her brother's exile. There was also some unpleasantness at school about an art competition that has left her isolated and bereft of creativity.

As the sources of Sarah's unhappiness reveal themselves and she finds out who is responsible for the losses she has suffered, the surreal episodes and bizarre behaviour make more sense, taking shape as a protective mechanism for a young girl who's endured heartbreaking damage.

A. S. King, an award-winning author of young adult fiction, shows a deep understanding of teen anxieties and writes with streetwise humour, tenderness and originality. Hers is a magical style that dances off the page, despite the underlying sadness of the subject matter.

Caroline Hunter is an ODT subeditor.

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