Book Review: Still Life, by Sarah Winman

There are moments in life, so monumental and still, that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart. Can never be retrieved without the rumbling disquiet of how close that moment came to not having happened at all.

Still Life

The book opens in Florence during World War Two. To the sound of bombs falling, two people meet one night and form a unique bond discussing the importance of art and the role it plays in the world. Ulysses and Evelyn. Ulysses is a young man from the West End, the son of a globe-maker, and Evelyn is an art-historian in her sixties who, on a trip to Florence in her twenties, met E.M. Forster in a pensione run by a cockney landlady. The impact they have on each other that night, and the influence of Italy, lasts them both a lifetime. Before he leaves Italy to return home, Ulysses saves the life of a suicidal man: an act that will have great repercussions later on in his own life.

When the War is over, Ulysses returns to London to work in a pub run by landlord and friend, Col. While he tries to decide what to do with his life now he’s home, he learns that his wife, Peg, had a child with an American soldier while he was away. But, having grown up together, Peg is his family and the bond between them is strong and Ulysses offers to help raise the child, Alys. Ulysses finds happiness and strength in Peg, Alys, Col, Piano Pete (the pub’s musician) and old friend Cressy, as well as Claude the pub parrot: they are his chosen family. But still he thinks of Florence and Evelyn.

Still Life as an epic that follows Ulysses for the next forty years and the lives of those who love and know him. It is full of the richness and beauty of life. Florentine sunsets drenched in wine. Lemon groves. Rich food with good friends, old and new. London smog and the smell of the inside of a pub. Fresh coffee straight from the pot. It’s about finding your place in the world and making happy memories with those you love. Saying yes to adventure and a life well lived. All the way through it is peppered with bistecca, passata, pepperoncino and La Dolce Vita.

I think it’s a country where things happen.

Things, Miss Skinner?

Love! she wanted to scream. Where love happens.

Yes, she said. Things.

Still Life

I loved this book. I thought it was epic in its coverage of four decades of life where each character was so beautifully brought to life on the page. All 436 pages. But it is a book where every word seems so perfectly placed to create such a rich and vivid story. Each of the characters were wonderful and full of quirks and individuality. Cress in his shorts. Col who dates women in alphabetical order of their names. Pete and his rags to riches to rags career. Sarah Winman threads in beautiful and joyful comments about each of them such as Claude quoting Shakespeare and Peg making an entrance to the pub that “was all MGM and the lion roared.”

How excited she felt, how invigorated. Adventure, the best medicine.

Still Life

I also really enjoyed the portrayal of female characters: with a masculine edge, imperfect and unmotherly in the traditional sense. Their passion for life and search for pleasure. Another gin, please. The book also talks about women in art and how they have been portrayed under the male gaze, exploring how women are taking back the feminine space.

It’s what we’ve always done. Left a mark on a cave, or on a page. Showing who we are, sharing our view of the world, the life we’re made to bear. Our turmoil is revealed in those painted faces – sometimes tenderly, sometimes grotesquely, but art becomes a mirror. All the symbolism and the paradox, ours to interpret.

Still Life

This book would probably be best read whilst sat outside a café on the Piazza Santa Croce with a glass of good Italian wine and a steaming bowl of pasta alla Genovese. Sauce spattering the pages. A group of Italian widows chattering and knitting on the benches nearby. If you can’t get there, it’s just as good sat in the garden with a G&T and a packet of biscotti.

Published by luggageandscribble

Oh hey, just a girl who loves reading.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Still Life, by Sarah Winman

  1. Another friend recommends this book to me just last week, so between that and your review I’ll have to put it on my must read list! Cheers


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