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Still Life by Sarah Winman

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction | Literary Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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Still Life by Sarah Winman is published with 4th Estate and is described as ‘a beautiful, big-hearted, richly tapestried story’. Probably one of the most difficult books I have ever tried to put words to, Still Life took me on a journey to a very special place. It is a book that shot an arrow deep into my heart and mind, a book I will cherish, a book I will treasure. There are many, many accolades for this gorgeous book but it is the words of Patrick Gale which for me best encapsulate my thoughts on this dizzying novel.

‘A playful, Maupinesque exploration of the elective family and its possibilities. Four course nourishment for all Winman fans, it harnesses big hearted storytelling to a dizzying historical sweep to celebrate love in all the available colours.’

Evelyn Skinner is an art historian with a passion for Florence, a passion for Italy. Over the years she has visited on numerous occasions, always returning to this city that captured her heart when she was a young woman, just on the cusp of adulthood. Now in her sixties, and with the Second World War raging on, Evelyn is back in the Tuscan hills, for reasons a little dubious. There she meets Ulysses Temper. He is a young English soldier with a depth of character that appeals to Evelyn.

‘The squeal of birds overhead delighted him. He and they had travelled hundred of miles north against all the odds to arrive at that place and time – swifts at the end of March and him in June – and the catalogue of near misses, or lucky escapes that had accompanied his journey across Africa, Sicily and up the Adriatic would have astonished priests and astrologers alike. Something had been watching over him. Why not a swift?’

She sees something in Ulysses, this fellow traveller through life, and he is smitten by this older lady. Their relationship is of the minds and, although brief, their connection remains strong, however in the years that followed ‘only their thoughts kept time. An elegant two-step created from a jig at the side of a Tuscan road.’

Ulysses Temper is a warm-hearted soul, a man who thinks only of others in his life and, as a result, people gravitate toward him. Serendipity intervenes and, in the post-war years, Ulysses’ life changes course from the streets of London’s East End to the piazzas of Florence. A new and exciting life is in his grasp and, never alone, Ulysses comes to ‘a quiet understanding that his life would have been less had he died without witnessing another corner of the planet.’ As he makes his way into the unknown, forging a new path for himself among the ashes of this post-war era, we journey alongside Ulysses as he embraces and begins to make sense of this Florentine life

Still Life is also very much the story of the raggle-taggle, eccentric and absolutely stellar cast of characters that accompany both Evelyn and Ulysses through life. The dialogue, the turn-of-phrase, the moments captured are all marvellously depicted with an expert pen that truly knows its audience. I adored every single word, every description, every witticism of this stunning novel.

I travelled to Tuscany with my husband many years ago. We stayed for two weeks near the town of Pontassieve outside Florence and I can clearly remember that feeling of being completely overwhelmed when I walked out of Santa Maria Novella Station. Florence is special. The people, the food, the architecture, the art, the smells, the incredible views from the Boboli Gardens and climbing to the top of the Duomo, the famed frescoes of the Last Judgment almost within reach. I get goose-bumps all over when I think of those who walked the narrow laneways before us. Florence is steeped in history. Every turn reveals something special. A feast for the senses in every way and reading Still Life just put me right back there.

Sarah Winman inserts into her tale a cameo appearance by the author E.M. Forster before he wrote his famed novel, A Room with a View. Evelyn recalls a time in her younger years when they crossed paths as guests at a certain pensione in Florence during her own formative years.

“He was a recent scholar, if I remember rightly. Covered in the afterbirth of graduation – shy, awkward, you know the type. Entering the world with no experience at all”

Evelyn’s memories and descriptions bring all the guests of that hotel very much to life, like an Oscar Wilde play unfolding as you turn the pages. Evelyn is a mysterious individual in so many ways and it is this enigmatic quality that draws everybody to her. She is generous with her time, free with her advice. She is a wonderful person. She is a very special individual.

Still Life really is an exceptionally beautiful and charming read filled with a spectacular cast and a story that is ingeniously woven from a war torn Florentine landscape to the post-war streets of London and on through the decades of time through a social and cultural history of Italy. I quite simply adored this book, this genius writing that epitomized everything I love in a book and more. There are many words that one could use to describe this gem but I am going to stick with exquisite because I truly believe that it is…..

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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