For a long while, the only books I wanted to read were the ones I knew I would love. I’d inspect the summaries on Goodreads with a close eye, taking the rating and the top review into account, and only when I was sure that I’d like the book, would I go out and grab a copy. That meant that I was reading a lot of the same kinds of books. That was okay, I guess, because I loved contemporaries and I loved dystopians. But it was only when I stopped being so certain of what books I would pick up did I discover that I loved reading so many other genres. Fantasy. Magical realism. And recently, I’ve discovered a new favourite genre of mine. I call it existential contemporary, which can also expand to slight variances in genre. A long name to describe the books that I’m loving reading at the moment.
Now, the way I choose which books I decide to read it vastly different from when I started blogging a few years ago. Most of the books I read are ones that I’ve seen on Twitter, mostly from people recommending it. Sometimes I get recommendations straight from my friends. But instead of meticulously combing through reviews to try and work out whether it would be worth my time, I ask for opinions. I ask people if they liked it, and if so, nine times out of ten I’ll add it to my basket without any thought. It’s rare that I know what a book is going to be about before I start reading it now, and I love that. I love going into a book completely blind because it allows me to be thrust straight into the world without forming any prior thoughts about what to expect. I love the surprise, and everything that comes with it.
And now that I’ve discovered a new favourite genre of mine, the existential contemporary, I’ve been asking people what books I could read that would fit into that category. To give you an idea of what other books I consider to slot into it, and that I’ve loved, here are a few: We Are The Ants, More Happy Than Not, and most recently, Still Life with Tornado. Each of these books share the same element — they all question the meaning of life and our purpose on Earth. They all have that existential element that makes you think about your life and what society has become. As I love learning about the philosophy behind the existential and nihilistic movements, I find books such as these fascinating. But I never would have found them without learning to not be so picky with what I read and trusting recommendations.
Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.
But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.
One of the key threads in Still Life with Tornado is the idea that nothing we do is original. That everything we do has already been done, and we never have any original thoughts or ideas. With something like seven billion people on the planet, it’s unlikely that even we, ourselves, are completely original. Different versions of us must exist all over the globe and through time. And that’s the idea that the author toyed with. By meticulously weaving in magical realism elements into the narrative and presenting the character at different times through different beings all coexisting, the themes of existentialism that linger at the core of this narrative are brought to the surface.
In a way, the author has done exactly what she has written about. She wrote that nothing we do is original, so she wrote about unoriginal occurrences in young adult fiction — abuse and strained family relationships and not knowing what you want to do with your life (all very typical themes) — and put a completely new spin on them. In an existential universe, the author offers us a glimpse of hope — that even though what we do might not be original, and we might not be the first, that doesn’t mean that our thoughts an ideas are any less valid because the way we look at them are unique to us. And I do think A.S. King’s writing is phenomenally unique. I feel as though I picked up this book at exactly the right time in my reading career, and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work. She’d definitely not a writer to be overlooked.
Still Life with Tornado is a slow-burning but fascinating book that follows not only the protagonist in her search for the meaning of life when nothing is original, but also uncovers the dark and haunting truth about one family’s past. With elements of magical realism, this novel is one that will have you glued to the pages. The writing is as lyrical as it is poignant, and I couldn’t recommend this one enough for people wanting to delve into the sub-genre I call existential contemporary.
Do you always read blurbs? How do you get your recommendations? Do you use Goodreads? What’s your favourite genre? I’d love to hear all about how you decide to pick up books!
Thanks to Text Publishing Australia for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
Original, unedited book stack used in header sourced from Geek Chic.