BOOK REVIEW: Still Life by Sarah Winman

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Tuscany, 1944: As Allied troops advance and bombs fall around deserted villages, a young English soldier, Ulysses Temper, finds himself in the wine cellar of a deserted villa. There, he has a chance encounter with Evelyn Skinner, a middle-aged art historian who has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the ruins and recall long-forgotten memories of her own youth. In each other, Ulysses and Evelyn find a kindred spirit amongst the rubble of war-torn Italy, and set off on a course of events that will shape Ulysses's life for the next four decades.

As Ulysses returns home to London, reimmersing himself in his crew at The Stoat and Parrot -- a motley mix of pub crawlers and eccentrics -- he carries his time in Italy with him. And when an unexpected inheritance brings him back to where it all began, Ulysses knows better than to tempt fate, and returns to the Tuscan hills.

With beautiful prose, extraordinary tenderness, and bursts of humor and light, Still Life is a sweeping portrait of unforgettable individuals who come together to make a family, and a richly drawn celebration of beauty and love in all its forms.

My Thoughts:

This novel brings together some of my own passionate loves: art, Italy, the work of E.M. Forster, the untold lives of women … and so, of course, it’s not surprising that I adored it. Sarah Winman has a fresh and unusual style of writing. She abandons quotation marks (which I usually hate), and she leaps over years with whimsical vignettes or quirky summaries. Yet somehow it all works. The book tells the stories of an elderly art historian named Evelyn Skinner and a young British soldier named Ulysses Temper, who met once in Florence at the end of World War II, but whose lives continue to touch and affect each other 40 years later. There are a great many colourful and eccentric minor characters, including a blue parrot that acts like a kind of wise fool, quoting Shakespeare or the Bible in eerily prescient ways. I particularly loved the women at the heart of the book – Evelyn herself, Ulysses’s former wife Peg, and her daughter by another man, often called simply the Kid. 


The novel is long and languid, like an Italian lunch, and full of musings on the importance of art and love and kindness and the meaning of life: ‘So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unsuspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds one of all that’s been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return. The proximity of new skin returns to the sheets. Beauty does what is required. Jobs fulfil and conversations inspire. Loneliness becomes a mere Sunday. Scattered clothes. Empty bowls. Rotting fruit. Passing time. But still life in all its beauty and complexity.’

I finished it with a big lump in my throat.


You might also like to read my review of A Letter from Italy by Pamela Hart:

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Kate Forsyth
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