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Still Life by Sarah Winman

Not for the first time, I have to thank the staff at the Taunton branch of Waterstones for recommending Still Life by Sarah Winman.

“Beautiful,” they said. “Quite simply, beautiful.”

We have a framed print on our living room wall, A Memory of Avignon by Chambré Hardman. We’ve had it for years and if you look closely, you can see the age spots on its surface… rather like its owner.

I love this print.

A Memory of Avignon

I love their clothes, their style, the way they’re so relaxed with one another.

I find myself staring at it, imagining what their conversation is about; what the relationship is between the three of them; how they all came to be here, in this glorious setting, on this glorious day.

And the reason why I’m telling you this, is because reading the first chapter of Still Life made me think of this print. The setting is different – Italy rather than France – and it’s evening rather than afternoon, but the period is roughly the same and it’s three people, a woman and two men, enjoying a glorious, and possibly impromptu, few hours together.

But more than that, in the same way that I look at the print and can feel the dappled sunlight on my skin and hear the laughter and conversational tones, it’s the power of Winman’s descriptive writing to transport me so vividly to Tuscany, into a cellar in a ruined villa in 1944, and feel as if I am in the room with them. From that very first chapter, I was utterly enthralled, and remained so until I finished the final page.

Synopsis of Still Life by Sarah Winman

Still Life recounts a chance encounter between a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper, and a 64-year-old art historian, Evelyn Skinner, in Tuscany in 1944. Together with Ulysses’ commanding officer, Darnley, the three spend a magical evening in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa. It’s an encounter that transforms Ulysses’ life in ways that he could never imagine, and its ripples spread to everyone in his circle of close friends.

After that first, magical scene and its ensuing consequences, the novel switches to 1946 and a de-mobbed Ulysses returns to his home in the Stoat & Parot (sic), a scruffy London pub. There we meet an eclectic cast of characters: Peg, Ulysses’ wife; Col, the bilious, coughing, bad-tempered landlord; Old Cressie, philosopher, philanthropist, and occasional psychic; Piano Pete; and the remarkable Claude – a large, blue-fronted, Amazonian parrot, and Col’s nemesis.

The contrast between Tuscany and London could not be more stark.

Grey skies, fog and damp cold replace the warmth and sunlight of Tuscany, and post-war despondency and bombed-out rubble replace the beauty and aesthetics of Italy. Then something happens to irrevocably change these lives, and we return to Florence. Like Victorian child workers emerging from chimneys to blink in the glare of sunlight for the first time, Winman takes us on a road trip across Europe through the eyes of 1950s working class Londoners, most of whom have never left England before.

Arriving in Florence, they find much more than they could ever have dreamed of, and we meet a whole new cast of captivating characters.

Along the way, we keep track of Evelyn Skinner as she continues to live her unconventional life, returning to Florence at every opportunity to recharge her intense love for the city, her “Firenze! Amore Mio!” Seemingly on some fated mission to collide once again, Ulysses’ and Evelyn’s paths run so close sometimes that they could touch, and yet, like the fingertips of Michelangelo’s Adam and God, don’t quite meet.

At times so frustrated by their close-but-no-cigar lives, I wanted to scream at the pages, “Look behind you!” That’s how engrossed I became in the lives of these characters. Every time I put the book down, I imagined the characters were all there, frozen in time, waiting for me to return so they could resume their lives. I like to imagine they are still all there; I just can’t see them anymore.

Reading Still Life by Sarah Winman made me want to pack a suitcase and head off once again on an adventure, somewhere warm, and filled with life and friends and new experiences. The back cover concludes:

‘Big-hearted, sweeping and full of unforgettable characters, Still Life is a novel about beauty, love, the families we forge and the friendships that make us.’

 

To that, I would add that it’s also full of vivid imagery, laughter, and reaffirmation of our ability to renew and refresh our lives, no matter how old we are.

This is one of the most engaging books I’ve read for a long time, and I’ve read some amazing books in the last year. I recommend it unreservedly and am wildly jealous that you have that experience ahead of you.

It would be great to know if you enjoy it as much as I did.

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