Still Life by Sarah Winman

Published by 4th Estate on June 1st

Available from West End Lane Books, All Good Bookshops and Online.

What They Say

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.

What I Say

When I finished reading Still Life I was faced with a problem. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to review it because I had no idea how I could do it the justice it deserves. This is a novel that encompasses so much so effortlessly, and the sheer scale and intricacies of everything Sarah Winman talks about within these pages is impossible to distil into a review.

From the moment you turn the first page, Sarah Winman pulls you into the world of Ulysses, Col, Evelyn, Peg, Cress, Pete and Alys. They are all seemingly disparate individuals who are simply connected by the fact that Ulysses is part of their lives. This gentle, kind and truly compassionate man has fought for his country in Italy, stopped a man from committing suicide and on returning home, discovers that his wife Peg has had a relationship with an American called Eddie and now has a daughter. Ulysses and Peg try to make a life together, but Peg loves Eddie, and wants only him.

When Ulysses is left an apartment by the man he saved in Florence, he makes the life changing decision to move there with Cress, his friend from the East End, and Peg decides to let him take Alys too. They also manage to sneak Claude the parrot from under the nose of Col, who runs the Stoat and Parot pub, and together they start a new life far away from the lives they have known.

Moving to Italy is the fresh start they all seem to need. The apartment is beautiful, the life seems idyllic, and they decide to turn the apartment into a Pensione named Bertolini. This is the world in which our characters show themselves at their most real and vulnerable, and Sarah’s incredibly perceptive and immersive writing means that you feel you absolutely know and understand every character by the end of the novel.

It is as if when people come to the Pensione, they can be their true and authentic selves. Free from preconceptions and assumptions, they have the chance to live the life they deserve rather than the one that society tells them they should have. The group of people who live and visit there are family to each other, and for me that was one of the most poignant parts of the novel – that these people have met by chance, but that their love and connections to each other is absolutely unbreakable. I loved the way in which the world of London, the East End and Italy are constantly intertwined, as Col, Peg and Pete regularly come to visit, and the tantalisingly missed chances for Evelyn and Ulysses to reconcile when they initially keep missing each other purely by chance are simply devastating!

For me, the women in Still Life were incredible to read about because while you may not always understand their decisions, you absolutely know that they are striving against all odds to live the lives they want. Peg is brutally honest about her maternal instincts and disinterest in parenting and knows that Alys will flourish if she lives with Ulysses. Evelyn has had to hide her sexuality for years for fear of being ostracised and condemned, irrespective of what she feels and has to constantly prove her academic worth in a male dominated world. Alys is truly her mother’s daughter, and her dogged determination to forge her own independent path in life and also be open about her sexuality is portrayed perfectly. Still Life as the title suggests also talks about the depiction of women in art, how the academic gaze has always been predominantly male. Evelyn is a tireless advocate of the need to recognise the importance of female artists and their works in the history of art, and I found that a really interesting viewpoint throughout the novel.

To read this novel is to live it completely. Sarah’s exquisite and sensory descriptions of life in Italy mean that as a reader you feel that somehow you are completely in the heart of the action. You feel the heat of the sun on your neck, taste the incredible food that makes you yearn for a plate of pasta, and the look and feel of the town is so incredibly clear in your mind that you can picture every room in the apartment and every landscape that you read about. As Still Life moves through the decades, we are witness to what is happening in the world around them. We learn about the impact it has on those who live in this seemingly idyllic place, but in a cleverly layered turn of events, we also see the effect that Evelyn has had on the work of the novelist E M Forster too, and specifically his novel A Room With A View.

Still Life is an exquisite and totally compelling novel about lives lived, loves won and lost, and the incredible strength and resilience we discover within ourselves when we need it most. When I finished this novel, I was really sad that my time with these people had come to an end, such was my love for them all. It is a novel that absorbs you so completely that you truly feel that you are right there with the characters for every step of their journeys. Its enduring message for me is that it makes you understand the immense power of love and friendship that we often take for granted, and in recognising it and accepting it, we can perhaps finally find peace. One of E.M. Forster’s most famous quotes is ‘Only Connect’, and in Still Life this is what is ultimately right at the very heart of this incredible novel for everyone in it, and for those of us who read it, it is something we should always endeavour to remember.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much to Liv Marsden at 4th Estate for my gifted proof copy.

If you would like to purchase a copy from West End Lane Books, you can click here

3 thoughts on “Still Life by Sarah Winman

  1. Alison says:

    Thank you so much for this review. Having just completed an indulgent re-read of the Cazalet Chronicles I was trying to find a book that would absorb me and this sounds a likely candidate.

    Liked by 1 person

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