My thanks to NetGalley and Fourth Estate for a review copy of this one.

Still Life is a heart-warming novel about art, Italy, and really, about life and its many colours. The book opens towards the end of the Second World War, when art historian (and perhaps, spy?) Evelyn Skinner, in her sixties, meets young soldier Ulysses Temper and his superior Captain Darnley in Florence; they form an instant bond, and Evelyn ends up passing on to Ulysses, her love for Florence, and art. The war ends and Ulysses heads back to England where he takes up a job in a pub run by his old friend Col and bonds with pianist Pete, and his father’s old chum (now his), Cressy. Here he also runs into Peg whom he had married before the war but who now has a child with an American soldier she had fallen in love with. Life is moving along (ups and downs) when Ulysses receives an unexpected inheritance and ends up moving to Florence with a motley crew—Peg’s daughter Alys or Kid, Cressy, and the pub’s blue parrot, Claude. Here they attempt to build a new life, one in which poetry and art become a matter of course. They form new bonds with new friends (particularly, the solicitor Massimo) and their neighbours, but old friends back in England are neither forgotten nor far away, for Pete, Col, and in her own way Peg remain part of their lives with visits, constant contact, but much more so by being there, when needed. Alongside we also keep meeting Evelyn Skinner and keeping up with developments in her life. The lives of Evelyn and Ulysses and their friends criss-cross and intertwine, as we follow them from the 1940s through to the 1970s.

Honestly speaking, when I started this book, I found it really hard to get into for nearly the first 20 per cent or so, but then once Ulysses, Kid, Cressy and Claude began to travel to Italy (perhaps a little before that), something changed and I began to be drawn in. Before I knew it, I was in a completely opposite position from not being into the book at all to being completely invested in all the characters, their stories—eager to know how things would turn out for each of them.

The book deals with so many things, art, philosophy, life—its ups and downs, friendships, relationships, love, loss—a whole gamut of topics and a whole gamut of emotions—perhaps a range of those also captured on canvas or in sculptures, but certainly ones we see play out every day. But what stands out ultimately is how important love and support are in life—not romantic love but love of friends, those whom one can bond with, those that stand by you unconditionally, unquestioningly, those who have always got your back. Ulysses and his friends—all of them—have just that and that is heart-warming to see.

I enjoyed Winman’s writing for the most part (this was my first time reading her), her descriptions of Florence (If you love the city, I think you’ll enjoy this all the more), the humour she manages to weave into the writing and plot, and also her story-telling. At times, it was very raw, very visceral which I am not sure how I felt about (may be not entirely comfortable).

My favourite part of the book though were the characters themselves—pretty much all of them are in some way or other eccentric, some of their motivations (particularly, Peg, I thought) don’t make sense and yet, you end up loving them all—main or supporting—each has a distinct personality and voice, each has their flaws, each makes mistakes, but you end up rooting for them all (with the exception of Ted, but then). (I did want to write more about them, but I feel that would end up turning into an essay.)

And speaking of characters, how can one not write about Claude, the Shakespeare quoting parrot (see cover image)—whether or not he was Shakespeare reborn, he is a loveable bird and a hero in his own right—I wont say how, but read the book to see.

I wish I could write something intelligent about the discussion of art in the book, because there was that too, but honestly with the state of mind I was in, I didn’t really take all of it in. But I did enjoy the discussion of women’s role in the renaissance as subjects and as artists (there were the rare women painters but sadly lost or hidden in the dominant histories).

And being a story of Englishmen (and women) in Italy, this would feel incomplete without Forster and Baedeker, so of course we have them too, Evelyn having ‘met’ Forster when she made her very first visit in her youth. I won’t tell you what happens but reading the book left me wanting to reread both A Room with a View and The Portrait of a Lady (Henry James is mentioned, too).

From a not so great start (though even that made sense later), this turned out to be a lovely, warm, read, full of hope, and about all that is good about human beings. Well worth a read. 4.25 stars from me!

Lines which resonated with me: 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.

One thing that irked me (and this may well be because it was a proof copy):  Mrs Kaur cooking Dal Makhana (should be Dal makhani, that i.e., buttery dal—a dish; not dal makhana (dal with foxnuts/lotus seeds—not a dish).

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

    1. Thank you 🙂 The audio might be good idea, because some people I know were annoyed with the absence of quotemarks all through in the dialogue; oddly it didn’t annoy me.

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