Title: Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie
Illustrations by Sungyoon Choi
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult
Length: 336 pages
Book Rating: C
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
When Walter Stahl was five-years-old, his mother drove away in the family’s blue Volvo and never came back. Now seventeen, living in the dregs of Las Vegas, taking care of his ailing father and marking time in a dead-end job along the Strip, Walter’s life so far has been defined by her absence. He doesn’t remember what she looks like; he’s never so much as seen a photograph but, still, he looks for her among the groups of tourists he runs into every day, allowing himself the dim hope that she might still be out there, somewhere.
But when Walter meets Chrysto and Acacia, a brother and sister working as living statues at the Venetian Hotel, his world cracks wide open. With them he discovers a Las Vegas he never knew existed and, as feelings for Chrysto develop, a side of himself he never knew he had. At the same time, clues behind his mother’s disappearance finally start to reveal themselves, and Walter is confronted with not only the truth about himself, but also that of his family history.Threading through this coming-of-age story are beautiful, heart-wrenching graphic illustration, which reveal the journey of Walter’s mother Emily: how she left everything to chase a vision of Liberace across the country; and how Walter’s father Owen went searching for her amongst the gondolas of the Venetian Hotel.
In James Sie’s debut novel, Still Life Las Vegas, the magical collides with the mundane; memory, sexual awakening and familial ties all lead to a place where everything is illuminated, and nothing is real.
Still Life Las Vegas by James Sie is a young adult novel that is unique and intriguing. Written from multiple points of view, the story goes back and forth in time and details the somewhat tragic life of the Stahl family but it mainly focuses on seventeen year old Walter. Interspersed with beautifully rendered illustrations by Sungyoon Choi, some parts of the story are told in graphic novel format while some of drawings are from Walter’s sketchbook.
Walter lives in a seedy part of Las Vegas with his father Owen who suffers from debilitating bouts of depression. Walter keenly feels the loss of his mother, Emily, who abandoned the family when he was five years old. He works in a tourist attraction where he searches the faces of the visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of his mom. He leads a rather lonely life until he befriends living statues Chrysto and his sister Acacia. This acquaintance becomes a time of discovery for Walter as his friendship with Chrysto takes a surprising turn while an unanticipated visit brings him unexpected news about his mom.
Forced to grow up too soon, Walter is extremely mature for his age. He often finds himself in the role of caregiver for Owen and he is responsible for most of the household chores and managing their meager finances. Although he has no memories of his mother, Walter finds himself looking for her in the faces of the tourists he meets. However, she is relegated to the back of his mind after he becomes enthralled with Chrysto. This friendship opens Walter to new experiences and also provides him with startling insight about himself. Shocking news about his mom coincides with a betrayal and sends Walter into a downward spiral.
The chapters in the novel alternate between Walter, Owen and Emily’s points of view. Walter’s chapters take place when he seventeen while Owen and Emily’s jump around to different time periods in their lives. Emily’s perspective includes pivotal information about her childhood while Owen’s detail the early years of his romance with Emily and their marriage. There are also chapters detailing Emily’s life after she abandons the family and her experiences reach nearly mythical proportions by the novel’s conclusion.
The coming of age aspect of the storyline, Walter’s personal awakening and learning the series of events that led to Emily’s abandonment are quite fascinating but the overall execution of the novel is disjointed and difficult to follow. Although the perspective changes are clearly marked, the time periods are fluid and some of the chapters end rather abruptly. The graphic novel sections are interesting but if you are not a reader of graphic novels, this switch from prose can be annoying. (I personally found the longer segments with the graphic elements frustrating since they contained vital information about the unfolding story.)
Although the plot is a little busy, Still Life Las Vegas is a poignant and engrossing novel coming of age novel. The characters are well-developed, the storyline is quite distinctive and the illustrations are absolutely beautiful. The Las Vegas setting is the perfect backdrop for the unfolding story and James Sie brings the city vibrantly to life. Unexpected plot twists keep the novel moving at a brisk pace and the conclusion is realistic and mostly satisfying.