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

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Bright Burning Things by Lisa Harding

Published by Bloomsbury

Available from All Good Bookshops and Online

What They Say

An immensely powerful and compulsive novel of maternal love, control and a woman at the mercy of addiction.

What I Say

From the moment you open the pages of this book, Sonya a single mum living in Dublin, this protagonist of Bright Burning Things bursts into the plot and seems to be an all encompassing passionate and vital woman, determined to ensure that her son Tommy has an unforgettable childhood with her.

What we learn about Sonya very quickly is that she is an alcoholic, dealing with a very real and invasive disease that is affecting her ability to care for Tommy and means that at times, this four year old boy is caring for his Mum. Make no mistake about Sonya, her love for her son is all encompassing and he is her world, but it is also evident to us from the start that her addiction to alcohol means that she is unable to care for him properly. Food in in short supply, he is not attending school, and there seems to be little or no routine for him as he helplessly watches his Mum try to exist in a world where what matters most is getting a drink.

Her Dad watches helplessly as his daughter slips further away from him, determined to do what she sees best for her and Tommy, even though we can see that unfortunately Sonya is not coping at all and needs help. Even when her Dad asks a neighbour Mrs O’Malley to be his eyes and ears and to make sure that she is coping, Sonya spirals into a world where Tommy is being neglected and she is unreachable. When finally Tommy is at risk, her Dad intervenes and facilitates an admission to a Rehab unit for twelve weeks, and if she refuses, he will remove Tommy from her care permanently.

Sonya ultimately knows that in order to keep Tommy, she has no choice but to agree, and has to deal with the reality that her son is living with foster parents and will do so until she can prove that she is fit to care for him. The description of Sonya’s time in rehab is hard to read, and you absolutely understand the huge emotional and physical demands that are placed on her, but at the heart of this experience is her realisation to fail would means losing the very thing that is keeping her there.

It is while she is in rehab that she meets David, a counsellor and former addict, and he seems to be the stability and hope that she needs. What becomes obvious to the reader is that she is relying on a man who seems intent on almost smothering her in his insistence at running the relationship his way, and her deep fear of losing her son means that for a while she is unable to articulate that she needs to be on her own with her son.

Lisa Harding is brilliant at showing us how chaotic, undisciplined and shifting Sonya’s world is, and while there is never any doubt as to the depth and breadth of her love for her son, there is also never any doubt as to how her alcoholism permeates every part of her life and world and she is constantly trying to ensure her addiction doesn’t lead to the loss of her son. As a reader with no experience of alcoholism, this novel was absolutely an education about this disease, and how the craving for drink obliterates reason and rationale. However on a human level, you cannot be failed to be moved by how much Sonya is aware of the struggle she is facing, and you feel her shame and anger at herself too. She knows this is not what a mother should be, but her fierce love and determination means that she understands that rehab is the only way in which she can give herself a chance at spending the rest of her life with her son.

Bright Burning Things is undoubtedly a raw and unflinching book about the realities of alcoholism, and to see how Tommy is trying to look after his Mum and be there for her at such a young age is difficult to read. What I loved about this book, is the way in which Sonya grows from defining her world by men and needing to have a drink, to realising that her best hope of change is to put herself and Tommy firmly at the front of everything she does.

I also felt like the book was split stylistically- pre-rehab, where her world seems surreal at times as she is unconfined by rules and regulations and pleases herself, and post-rehab, where she slowly understands the power she holds within herself and the realisation that she needs to be Tommy’s mother. The writing is at times hypnotic and immersive as you find yourself absorbed and disconnected from reality in Sonya’s world, and there were passages that were so beautifully laid bare for the reader, that it was impossible not to be moved.

In Bright Burning Things, Lisa Harding has created a protagonist in Sonya who may exasperate us at times, delight us often and may infuriate us at others. Yet above all she has created for us that undeniable emotional connection where all you want is for Sonya to get the chance to be the mother you know she can be, and the Mum that Tommy truly deserves.

I loved it.

Thank you so much to Laura Meyer at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy.