beautifully written | warm-hearted | escapist | emotionally captivating | resistance is futile!
what it says on the cover …
From the author of When God was a Rabbit and Tin Man, Still Life is a big-hearted story of people brought together by love, war, art and the ghost of E.M. Forster.
1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening.
Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view.
Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades.
Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.
PUBLISHED: 1st June 2021
SHELF: Literary Fiction | Cultural Fiction
AUTHOR: Sarah Winman
PUBLISHER: 4th Estate Books
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | Audiobook
my review …
I’ve seen many reviews where Still Life has been categorised as historical fiction. Whilst this book is spans a swathe of pivotal decades of modern history, to me this novel is primarily a loves story … yes, I did mean loves, that’s a very deliberate typo. Because this is a book that embraces and celebrates every kind of love. But with love comes its counterpoint, heart-break, and this book deals some truly breathtaking blows. The loves and losses are distributed – unequally – between a cast of unforgettable characters, in a beautifully written and emotionally captivating book that I urge you to get your hands on.
The book’s synopsis (see above) gave me the impression that Still Life would be an historical fiction novel set in and around the Second World War. Yes, the opening chapter is set in 1944, but Still Life has such a big story to tell, and its 487-pages swept me up in an expressive, warm-hearted, soul-soothing story that kept me hopelessly captivated until 1979. The passage of time punctuates the progression of the fictional plot with factual anchor points that each make their mark on the characters’ lives: the great smog of London in ’52, the coronation, protests against the war in Vietnam, the lunar landing, the Kennedy assassination, the socio-political movement, and – most notably – the horrific floods that devastated Florence in 1966.
Ulysses is the book’s pivotal character, orbited by a cast of perfectly imperfect individuals. It’s Ulysses – named by his father after a lucrative win on the dogs – who carries the story from war-torn Florence, to his east London home, and back again to Florence to start a new life. He is a joy to get to know, as are the people he surrounds himself with … or perhaps I should say the people who gravitate towards him. He’s utterly charming, but quietly so; a study of human kindness, generosity and acceptance.
Our first encounter with him is also our first encounter with Evelyn; several decades his senior and yet there’s an immediate bond that transcends the generational gap, and one that will last for decades to come. Evelyn is book’s other main character, although the author creates a delicious air of mystery around her with infrequent appearances and the occasional coincidental crossing of paths, both with Ulysses and other people in the young man’s life. Her enigma is her allure – there are hints she was a spy during the war, and she was well ahead of her time with her bohemian lifestyle, her independence, and her refusal to conform. Florence is her passion, one that she instilled in Ulysses during their brief hours together in a Tuscan cellar, drinking priceless bottles of Pouillac and Margaux with the divine Captain Darnley as German bombs thunder into the earth above them.
Together, both Ulysses and Evelyn cast a spell on the reader, and I defy you not to fall head over heels for their beloved city. The author has written a world so vibrant and irresistibly inviting … it’s saturated in sentiment and sensation and I relished every decade, every location, the food and drink, the art, the architecture, the history-soaked city, the days and nights … it’s all been written with such ravishing beauty.
The author creates an eclectic community around Ulysses – one that enjoys his company as much as I did. The contrasts between each character are rich and engaging, and whilst they each develop as the book progresses, they’ve been written with such care and attention that they burst from the page with an intimate familiarity from the very first moment you meet them. Your heart will soar, and from time to time it will feel sore too; broken. That’s the utterly inescapable beauty of this book – you feel its every twist of fate, every collision with chance, every high and every low as if it’s happening to you personally. It holds you in its gaze and you can’t look away.
Ulysses’ wife, Peggy, is a disarming character whose sharp edges belie the intense and vulnerable woman beneath; in spite of her every effort to keep the reader at arm’s length, she’s impossible not to adore. The real Peggy is revealed to us gradually through her friendships with Pete (the sensitive, talented pianist at Col’s ropey East End pub – The Stoat & Parrot), and Cress (the wise and prescient man I ached to jump into the book and talk with for hours) and, of course, Ulysses … the man irredeemably in love with her. So many times I despaired of Peggy’s choices (infidelity, giving up her daughter Alys, marrying a man who will hurt her so badly) and yet they made me cherish her all the more.
At the other end of the spectrum is Claude … one of the characters who peppers the story with levity and moments that had me laughing out loud. Claude is the book’s cover star … a stunning parrot who fell down the chimney of The Stoat Pub, refusing to leave and instigating its name change to the incongruous Stoat & Parrot. He’s a bird of few words during his time in London, cowed by the volatile temper of landlord Col. But my word does that change when he creates a new life for himself in Florence! He’s a whole new bird, and we have the delightful Cress to thank for that, smuggling him across the border in a false-bottomed briefcase. Don’t tell anyone, but Claude was my favourite character – part Shakespeare, part life-coach, part Liberace, and all round entertainer.
This is the first novel by Sarah Winman that I’ve read (soon to be rectified), so I’m new to her writing. What struck me immediately was the distinctive style in which the characters’ conversations are presented – there’s not a single speech mark. I was a little distracted by this at first and wondered if it was going to influence my enjoyment of the book … and it absolutely did! But in the very best way. It’s hard to try and put into words how, but I liken it to when you meet someone fascinating and moreish who’s so quietly spoken you have to lean in to their story, get close and listen intently. It forges a closer bond between the storyteller and the listener/reader, and I’ve no doubt this decisive style played as much of a role in the immersive nature of Still Life as the sumptuous setting and the embrace of its welcoming characters. There are some coincidences that perhaps stretch the bounds of credibility, but to be honest I was so completely in love I just didn’t care … they felt perfect and quickened my pulse.
Any reader picking up Still Life has struck gold! This beautiful, cinematic novel has firmly established itself in my list of all-time favourites, alongside others that have moved me with their rich and evocative settings, enticing emotional resonance, and an overwhelming desire to step into their pages … it joins Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Chocolat, The Night Circus, All The Light We Cannot See, and The Little Paris Bookshop as a book I will read again … and again.
Thank you to Liv Marsden and 4th Estate Books for sending me a beautiful, advance proof copy of Still Life in return for an impartial review.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my honest review of this book.
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Sarah Winman (born 1964) is a British actress and author. In 2011 her debut novel When God Was a Rabbit became an international bestseller and won Winman several awards including New Writer of the Year in the Galaxy National Book Awards.
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